L.A. County doesn’t have enough teachers. Low pay and burnout aren’t helping the problem
A growing number of Los Angeles teachers are facing a tough decision––to leave their jobs or quit the profession altogether because they can’t afford to stay. Low, stagnant salaries that fail to keep pace with the region’s soaring costs of living are responsible for high teacher turnover and a shortage of teachers to fill thousands of open positions.
Three weeks into Los Angeles Unified’s fall term, L.A. County has 5,572 vacancies for teachers, a 24% increase from last year, and roughly 22% of the open spots statewide, according to the California Department of Education. Special education teachers are in highest demand as well as for teachers of self-contained classes, in which one teacher has the same students for multiple subjects (a common practice for students with special needs).
The minimum salary for an LAUSD teacher in the 2022-23 school year is $56,107. Despite recent union contracts that resulted in a 21% wage increase, educators continue to grapple with the region's high cost of living, which makes it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.
The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles was $2,400 in August, according to Zumper, a real estate website that tracks rental prices across the U.S.
“That future of buying a house is just looking dismal for the younger teachers,” said Rosemarie McCabe, 60. McCabe is a fourth-grade teacher at Thomas Edison Elementary in Glendale. “Most of the older teachers, they already [own homes]. So, they're just struggling to make the mortgage.”
To cope with the area’s high cost of living, many teachers endure long commutes. McCabe estimates that about 20% of teachers at her school drive at least 20 miles to and from work each day.
Karen Starler, a sixth-grade teacher at an LAUSD charter school in Northridge, said she works a second job to supplement her paycheck and help her raise her three sons. In addition to teaching, she mentors new teachers and works as a facilitator for The Support Network. “Not [being able to afford the] costs of living truly puts a heavy burden on teachers as a whole,” she said. Starler, 59, said she plans to retire early.
“This is the dilemma of most single-income teachers,” said Starler, who is single.
More than 88% of California teachers ranked better pay as a top priority to improve teacher retention in a recent UCLA survey of 4,600 educators across the state.
Kai Mathews, project director of the California Educator Diversity Project, advocates for establishing a statewide base minimum salary to eliminate competition between districts and ensure a consistent livable wage for educators.
As a former teacher in San Diego, Mathews recalled having to make the difficult decision to switch districts for better pay.
“I would have loved to stay at my other school, but it's hard when you also have student loans,” said Mathews, 37.
In some districts, like Beverly Hills Unified, where 69% of students are white, the salary for a first-year teacher is $67,641. But, in Inglewood Unified School District, where Black and Latine students are the majority, new teachers earn $47,156—roughly 43% less, according to pay data.
Mathews said less-resourced districts constantly lose out to districts with higher tax brackets that can offer more competitive salaries.
While policies exist to address these concerns, the necessary infrastructure and practices are not fully in place to uphold promises of increased teacher support, said Megan Bart, the Los Angeles deputy director of campaigns of Educators for Excellence.
Recently, Educators for Excellence, a national teacher-led advocacy organization, developed an anti-racist teaching short course for LAUSD educators that debuts this fall. The goal is to improve cultural competency. Teachers who complete the course earn a credential and three points that can result in a salary boost.
Related: Leaving for Greener Pastures: Why South San Francisco High School Teachers Move to Neighboring Districts
Smaller class sizes also play a pivotal role in alleviating the challenges teachers face. The average of the teacher-to-student ratio of all school districts within L.A. County was 20 students in the 2018-19 school year, the most recent data available from the state Department of Education.
In addition, some districts are trying to bring on additional staff to make teacher workloads more manageable, said Michelle Castelo Alferes, Los Angeles County Office of Education director.
The struggle for more respect and pay
Beyond better pay and more help, teachers also yearn for greater respect for their profession. Teachers often find themselves going above and beyond their job descriptions, especially during and in the aftermath of the pandemic.
Growing up with a mom and sister who were teachers, Amy Owen knew what she was getting into––low pay, stress and disrespect—when she herself decided to become an elementary school teacher.
Still, Owen was happy and proud to be a teacher and was often met with enthusiasm from others regarding her teaching profession.
“It really helped when the work became increasingly difficult,” said Owen, 49.
But, after teaching for 20 years, Owen left LAUSD last year. She said that as much as she loved working with kids, the job was burning her out, both physically and emotionally.
“I never developed that thick skin that helps veteran teachers survive until retirement,” said Owen.
While she was a teacher, Owen rented an apartment in the Palms neighborhood just north of Culver City. She biked the short distance to her school, Crescent Heights Boulevard Elementary. Although she really wanted to buy a home, housing prices in Los Angeles put home ownership out of reach. To buy someplace more affordable, Owen said she would have had to commute at least three hours a day, an impossible burden to add onto her workload.
Most teachers that Owen knows who own homes are able to do so because of their spouse’s income or they were gifted by family. Like Starler, Owen was priced out of the market as a single-income household.
Owen moved to Charlotte, North Carolina in 2022, where she now owns a condo that she paid a fraction of what it would have cost her in Los Angeles.“I'm much healthier and happier now, although I'm still heartbroken to not be a teacher anymore,” said Owen, who works as a writer now. “It's been a year since I quit, but it still hurts.”
The future of teaching
For many young teachers, low pay and burnout make the profession unsustainable long-term. Similarly, longtime teachers either plan to retire early or switch careers, said McCabe.
Justine facet, originally from New York City, moved to Los Angeles in 2018 as part of Teach for America, a nonprofit that recruits recent college graduates and professionals to teach in underserved communities. Bernacet, now 27, was first assigned to a school in Pico-Union and then later to East Los Angeles. She noticed people dropping out of the program after realizing the job’s heavy workload and low compensation.
Even still, Bernacet completed her two-year teaching assignment and continued teaching until earlier this year. She became a teacher with hopes of offering the same level of support she experienced as a student. After five years teaching in Los Angeles County, she departed feeling disheartened, unable to replicate the high-quality education she had experienced at private school. “I felt discouraged by the structural inequity that existed in the education system, and the overwhelming workload on teachers without adequate compensation,” she said.
Bernacet, who identifies as Latine, also said, “I was also discouraged by the specific exploitation of educators of color to address the racial and ethnic disparities in student achievement instead of addressing structural inequity.”
Bernacet said she used to teach 120 students a day in the span of four class periods. She said it’s harder to support and address the needs of every student when classes are so large. For her, having support staff in the classroom and more prep time would have alleviated much of the stress that comes with the job.
“If you're a teacher who's just getting into the classroom with very little experience and very little support from your administrators or fellow coworkers or just the school system in general, it breaks people down,” said Bernacet. “If teachers aren't able to keep up with demand, then they quit. And if they quit, then [teachers that are left] have to pick up that load.”
“I think it took a huge emotional and mental toll when I realized that operating within these systems felt so hopeless to me,” Bernacet said.
Between 2008 and 2019, the number of people who completed teacher-education programs declined by almost a third. Since the pandemic, the teacher shortage has only been exacerbated. In 2015, Los Angeles County had roughly 73,300 teachers. In 2022, that number shrunk to about 68,000, according to state data.
Bernacet said the financial barriers to becoming a teacher also make it more difficult to enter the field. For many prospective teachers, the burden of student loans feels financially impractical, considering the modest starting salary for the job. Obtaining teaching credentials, typically through a two-year induction program, can be costly.
For example, the San Diego County of Education's program is $5,000. In the Los Angeles area, tuition is more expensive. At Cal State Fullerton, prospective teachers pay $5,850 total. UCLA’s program is $8,300 and Claremont Graduate University, part of the private Claremont Colleges, is $12,000.
To retain teachers, some districts have implemented incentives, including signing bonuses, covering candidates' credential program expenses and creating pathways for professional growth and leadership opportunities, said Michelle Castelo Alferes, Los Angeles County Office of Education director.
Despite efforts to woo prospective teachers to address the severe teacher shortage, districts face an uphill battle. “Even as a former teacher that loves the job of teaching,” said teacher advocate project director Mathews, “It’s hard for me to make selling points.”