When she was a first grader, Melissa Walaitis would carefully copy her teacher's bulletin board display in her notebook. She knew in her heart she would become a teacher one day.
That's exactly what she did. For the past 24 years, Walaitis taught fourth and fifth graders, most recently in the Fox School District in suburban St. Louis.
This year, she didn't go back to school.
Walaitis is among the thousands of teachers who have left their classrooms before retirement age, contributing to significant teacher shortages in areas that haven't struggled with this issue before. Their reasons are diverse and multifold, including burnout from the challenges of the pandemic, political efforts to ban what they can say or teach, and a lack of administrative or community support.
Walaitis saw elementary school students with huge deficits in social development when they returned to the classroom post-pandemic. Fourth graders acted out in ways she had not seen before. No one seemed to know how to support teachers who were overwhelmed and struggling.
"I felt like I was never enough -- nothing I could do was enough for my students," she said. "When you see these insurmountable challenges, it really affects your mental health as a teacher."
She had already been working a second job as a travel agent for several years to support her family. At the end of the last school year, she decided to leave her first love -- teaching -- and focus on building her business.
"It says something if running a travel agency in 2020 was less stressful than teaching," she said.
Brandi Gunn, who taught middle school English for 16 years, also knew from a young age what she wanted to do.
"I feel like I was born to teach," Gunn said. "That's my thing. I love teaching."
But the past three years exposed too many ugly truths to her. During the pandemic, she saw many derogatory comments about teachers on social media. Then, English teachers across the country started getting bombarded with proposed book bans and political agendas.
All of this "noise," said Gunn, was "kind of defeating. It stole a lot of joy from doing the job we loved."
Even though her school district supported librarians and teachers against attempts to ban books about race and gender, the debates changed the way she thought about adding new material to her curriculum.
"Now we have to think about how a book will go over ... Are people going to be upset about it?" she said. "In a sense, the banning won."
Gunn has a master's degree in curriculum and instruction, plus years of experience, but she said she no longer felt the professional freedom to do her job the way she used to.
Now, she works as a flight attendant with Southwest Airlines. She misses teaching, but there are advantages to her new profession.
"Teachers are never really off the clock," she said. "Now, I can do my job and go home."
Stefanie Buscher taught instrumental music in the Rockwood, Missouri, school district for more than 11 years. In 2020, she gave birth to a preterm baby. After her maternity leave, she was required to come back in person for band rehearsals and football games. She was worried about the risk that COVID posed to her infant, so she ended up leaving the district -- and teaching altogether.
"I was a career teacher, but I felt I had no choice," she said. She felt like she had to choose between her career and protecting her baby. She also said she "made the mistake of watching a few Rockwood school board meetings online," where she heard community members criticizing teachers during an already-difficult time to teach.
"It's heartbreaking," said Buscher. "You're in it for the kids, but there are all these other things."
Buscher recently got her real estate license and now works as a real estate agent.
Parents and politicians who began attacking teachers during the pandemic, and who have only intensified their efforts since then, are starting to see the consequences of their behavior as districts around the country are experiencing teacher shortages. But the impact will be much bigger than just a few widely reported shortages.
School districts in poorer areas have had to contend with teacher shortages for decades. Now, middle-class public schools, as well as affluent schools serving predominantly white students, will suffer in similar ways: less-experienced educators, larger classrooms and fewer specialized subjects, for example.
You can't devalue, dehumanize and demoralize professionals and expect them all to just keep taking it.
When you make teachers the target, you're ultimately aiming at your own children.