Teacher who quit after 24 years blames parents: ‘We didn’t sign up to be a glorified babysitter’

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Are you a teacher looking to share insight on issues or things that are working well in your school district? Reach out to me: sunny.nagpaul@fortune.com 

Brenda C., a 60-year-old teacher who asked Fortune to withhold her last name due to privacy concerns, has taught grades 7 and 8 for the last 24 years. But stress from parental expectations, combined with years of inadequate behavioral support for her students, drove her to a breaking point. 

Her goal was to make it to the end of the school year before she retired, she said in a video posted on TikTok, but found the stress of navigating difficult parents to be unbearable.

“Parents,” she said in the video, “you need to get off the backs of your teachers.” 

Many school teachers—especially those who work in low-income areas—are struggling to manage large classrooms along with high expectations from parents that they feel are unrealistic. As high levels of burnout and stress are driving a teacher shortage (made worse by the pandemic), some teachers are encouraging those struggling not to leave the profession entirely, and instead find districts that offer both teachers and students the proper support they need to maintain a sustainable career. 

Brenda spent the majority of her career teaching English language arts and social studies to  middle schoolers in different districts around California’s Bay Area. She spent less than a year at her last job, which was in a district she described as “lower-middle class,” with a lot of children of military parents, who she described as “very transient.” 

In the district, she said, “you have more absent parents, or parents who are not as involved in their children’s education because they’re in the military and they’re moving.” It’s a stark contrast to the district she previously worked at for 12 years, which was also in the Bay Area, but was “an affluent district,” where students had fewer behavioral problems. 

Brenda submitted her letter of resignation on February 14, months before the school year officially ends in June, because she hit a breaking point. “My mom was having health issues back home and I just had a really bad parent meeting, and I had just had it,” she told Fortune, adding, “I had been thinking about resigning for quite a few years prior to that day, but everybody’s got a breaking point in life and my mental health was more important to me at that point than continuing.” 

On the meeting, she said, “I was going into it burnt to the crisp, and the parent said something to the affect of, ‘you’re supposed to meet my child’s needs,’ and that’s what set me off, because that’s not going to happen in a room of 34 children with 34 different needs.” 

“There are some parents who struggle meeting the needs of one child,” she said in her video. “Imagine trying to meet the needs of 34 all at the same time.” 

It’s a sentiment many other teachers can empathize with, including Sarah Pugh, a 32-year-old teacher based in the Metro East suburban area of St. Louis. Pugh, who has been teaching elementary school students for the last 10 years, believes these stresses are much harder for teachers in districts that don’t offer enough support for instructors and students who may be struggling with issues that cause behavioral problems. 

“The issue is those extra supports cost money—and schools are already tight on money,” Pugh told Fortune, adding, “that teacher talked about having 34 students in a classroom. My class sizes are normally 20 students, and we prioritize having smaller classes to help meet the students’ needs better. Not everyone has the money to do that.” 

Pugh has taught third grade at her current school district, which covers 750 children in grades K-4, for five years now, and describes the district as “very diverse, both racially and economic-wise, with a lot of low-income housing.” These situations, she said, often mean children face stresses of poverty at home, including housing instability, trauma, and single-parent households—and also means some parents aren’t able to spend as much time teaching their children core behavioral skills they need.

“In a lot of single-parent households, parents are overstretched trying to make all the ends meet,” she explained, “so it’s not necessarily that they are expecting the teachers to do everything, but some of those things that normally a parent would be teaching gets left behind for survival instincts.” 

Pugh believes the “biggest key to a child’s success is teachers and parents working together as a team,” especially when it comes to addressing behavioral issues that come as children learn how to talk about their feelings, manage their emotions, and interact with others. Students who live in economically-challenged areas, including the districts Pugh and Brenda have taught in, can have behavioral issues that arise from the stresses of poverty, including difficulty self-regulating emotions and attention-seeking behavior that can disrupt classes. 

“It varies from classroom to classroom because all kids are different,” she said. “Things like manners, taking turns in conversations, keeping hands to themselves and how to handle conflicts with another student” are some of the most common behavioral issues she sees.

Pugh said she doesn’t experience serious issues with the majority of her students, but has “been growled at in the past during my first year of teaching.”

These behavioral problems can also go unaddressed for years, creating situations where children never quite learn the basics of self-regulating their emotions and interacting with other students even as they become teenagers. That’s the situation Brenda, who has taught middle school for over two decades, found herself in. 

“Some children are coming into school with so many emotional, social, and spiritual deficits,” she told Fortune, adding, “We didn’t sign up to be a glorified babysitter, psychiatrist, priest or rabbi.”  

To be sure, high levels of stress and burnout is driving an exodus of teachers out of the profession and has contributed to a shortage of teachers in at least one subject area or grade level in 41 states and Washington D.C., according to a 2022 U.S Department of Education report.

Studies led by researcher Tuan Nguyen, an associate professor at Kansas State University, place the current teacher shortage at 55,000 vacant positions and an additional 270,000 teaching posts currently filled by underqualified teachers. 

Teachers, especially those who instruct grades K-12, also report some of the highest levels of burnout than workers in several other industries, including higher education, finance, and retail, according to a poll of over 12,000 full-time U.S. employees by consulting and research company Gallup. The poll shows about 52% of K-12 teachers report feeling burned out “always” or “very often” at work, compared to 35% of employees in higher education and 32% of employees in retail sectors. 

Pugh believes more support for students with behavioral problems is paramount for reducing needless stress for teachers and actually improving the problematic behaviors—and her district could be somewhat of a model for improvements other districts could make. 

At the start of the 2022 school year, her district launched a program called “Character Strong,” a weekly lesson that teaches kids how to speak up about their needs and handle intense emotions or frustrations in respectful and safe ways. 

“The education system is pushing for more social emotional learning standards,” she said, “and I’ve seen that program help students in my class.” 

Pugh’s district also employs two full-time social workers who lead social emotional learning in small settings of two or three students, she said, while her previous district had a social worker who would “come in once a week for half a day, but if you have a lot of behavior needs, that’s not enough.” 

Other things Pugh thinks work well in her district include administrative staff that actively involves teachers in important decisions, like parent-teacher meetings and disciplinary action for students, and being given paid time to attend development training in areas like how to engage with children experiencing trauma. 

For other teachers who are struggling with the stress of parental expectations and inadequate support at school, Pugh offers some tender advice: “Move districts instead of just giving up the job entirely because not all schools are like that. You just have to find the good ones.” 



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