The problems of the American education system are vast and complicated. Teaching is a challenging career. According to statistics from the 2007-2008 school year, 10 percent of first-year teachers quit the profession. 17 percent of new teachers resign within five years (Earlier estimates cite much higher numbers of attrition)1)https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/local/wp/2015/04/30/study-new-teacher-attrition-is-lower-than-previously-thought/?utm_term=.16501bcca4fb. Why do so many teachers relinquish the career dreams?
It’s not just new teachers that leave education. Many great teachers end their careers early due to the epic problems facing our schools. Eco Child’s Play former contributor Katy Farber has written a book on the subject. Why Great Teachers Quit and How We Might Stop the Exodus explores the multi-faceted issue of challenges facing educators.
Katy is an educator herself and was motivated by her own experiences in the trenches to share stories from many interviews of teachers across the country.
I talked to Katy when she was writing this book. I am one of those teachers that quit after five years in elementary education (I continued another eight years in preK). Katy’s insight rings true. Coupled with personal reasons of child-rearing, I can relate to the content of this book.
In eight chapters, Katy outlines the multiple reasons why great teachers quit.
- Standardized Testing
- Working Conditions in Today’s Schools
- Ever-Higher Expectations
- Respect and Compensation
- School Boards
In addition to outlining problems, Why Great Teachers Quit includes “Silver Linings”. These are aspects of teaching that keep educators on the job year after year. From making a difference to partnering to help a child read, the rewards of education are as vast as the problems.
So many of the reasons teachers quit have nothing to do with actual teaching. The love for teaching can be overshadowed by all the other stresses that go along with the job.
Why Do Teachers Quit?
I still work occasionally as a substitute teacher. I enjoy my time in the classroom. On good days, I think I could still do this. I could be a teacher. Upon reflecting upon the chapters in Katy’s book, I share my experience.
I took my first leave of absence after the birth of my daughter. I was not sure if I would return after the year was up. After five years of working long days and giving my all, I was burned out. I wanted to put energy into my own child.
My own teaching experience was unique. I taught in a one-room schoolhouse. All grades K-8 in one room. This rural, mountain school served children of back-to-landers and impoverished families, some without even running water.
My unique experience makes some of the issues in Why Great Teachers Quit and How We Might Stop the Exodus moot. For example, I didn’t care about standardized testing. My school was so small scores were not reported in order to maintain children’s confidentiality. I focused on teaching standards-based curriculum and not to the test. Our school was not evaluated by the state based upon standardized scores. I was lucky.
I told parents that they were legally allowed to opt out testing especially for young children or those with special needs. Standardized testing is not developmentally appropriate for the early grades. Little if anything is gained from standardized testing of children with special needs. They are repeatedly assessed as part of their Individualized Education Programs (IEP). Parents and children don’t need to know they are below grade level. They already know that. These children don’t need more stress and anxiety.
Schools get penalized if a percentage of students opt of testing, thus inappropriate and harmful testing practices continue.2)https://www.deyproject.org/uploads/1/5/5/7/15571834/fact_sheet_on_testing_final.pdf Teachers are powerless to make change and get in trouble if they inform parents of their rights to opt out.
Working Conditions in Today’s Schools
The physical condition of my school changed greatly over my brief teaching career. The custodian cared for the facilities and was responsive. At one point, we had a lovely rose garden and home cooked meals. As budget cuts were made year after year, less money was available. The rose garden died, only part of the school had asbestos removed, pipes froze often in the winter, the custodian’s hours were cut, etc. Some schools receive modernization money for big fixes; other schools must pass bonds to repair mold damage or lead water contamination or face closure.
The right to free public education should ensure our students and teachers to safe, clean facilities. It affects everyone’s health and well-being to work in buildings of disrepair.
Higher expectations…I put those on myself. I felt a huge responsibility to give these children the best education possible because of their location and home lives. Each year, these kids didn’t change teachers. They had me year after year after year. My faults would compound if I let them down. I put in long hours including weekends. I graded every piece of work with my full attention. I attended school board meetings an hour away. I participated in professional development opportunities often. I was on school site councils and district committees. I was isolated with little opportunity for staff collaboration. I burned myself out.
Great teachers have high expectations of themselves and their students. Both rise to the occasion. They don’t need outside pressure to raise the barre.
Great teachers risk burning out from their dedication. I simply didn’t have it in me to stick it out. I admire my colleagues that are still in the trenches giving their all for our future.
The politics of education is simultaneously fascinating and frustrating. Teachers quickly learn the limits of state and federal education codes. They see how educated parents of children with special needs receive more services than those that don’t know the law. Great teachers fight for these kids. They go outside the box and find solutions when the administration says no.
There is no extra money for intervention services in small districts. There’s no trained staff dedicated to helping kids that struggle. Often paraprofessionals are used because they are cheap and require less education and clearances to be hired. Unless a child qualifies for special education services, teachers are told to figure it out on their own. They want to! They want these kids to succeed! They also have dozens of other kids’ needs to meet, included those that are gifted.
Field trips, as Katy mentions in her book, is one area that has taken a big hit from bureaucracy. In my short career, we went from parent drivers to school vans driven by teachers to school buses driven by bus drivers. The latter being way more expensive and restrictive, as they buses are needed back in time for their regular routes.
School insurance limits what sort of activities you can do with students on field trips. Extra insurance is necessary for anything beyond visiting a museum it seems.
Respect and Compensation
The trend in education is to do more with less and less funding each year. Staff members end up contributing out of their own paychecks for supplies. Families are asked to donate and fundraise for activities like field trips and sports that used to be funded publicly. It’s exhausting as an educator to fulfill all of the responsibilities of teaching and take charge of fundraising too. Grant writing is cumbersome.
It’s often cited that new teachers would stick it out if the pay was higher. This may be true. Teachers deserve compensation on high levels that express how important their jobs are to our society, as well as accurately reflect the long hours great teachers put in. They should be able to afford to live in the same communities in which they teach.
But what about summers off? Teachers start to plan and clean out their classrooms in the summers. They attend professional development conferences often on their own dime. They never stop thinking about their careers.
As my teaching career progressed, my paycheck shrunk as I rose up the salary schedule. Why? Health insurance. When I began teaching, full coverage was included. When health insurance premiums rose, the district could no longer afford to cover full time employees fully. Each year, teachers’ contributions to insurance rose. Pay checks shrunk even as salaries increased.
Parents can be the greatest asset to teachers, or they can lead unfair witch hunts. Like most teachers, I experienced supportive parents and disgruntled parents. I became counselor to many. Sometimes parent conferences lasted for hours and were filled with tears. Sometimes parents were angry over discipline issues, mostly involving other staff. As lead teacher, I was the administrator on sight and handled issues normally sent to the principal who was an hour away down a windy one-lane road.
During my two year leave of absence, parents repeatedly called the superintendent to ask when I was returning. I was supported by parents because I took the time to communicate and made myself available to them anytime. It was part of my burn out. It was part of my commitment. I cared deeply. Twenty years later, students and parents still come up to me to thank me or tell me I was the best teacher their child ever had.
I didn’t quit because of parents. I experienced aggressive ones and complacent ones. The parents were just another time and energy drain that lead to my exhaustion. My expectations of teaching children did not include the level of commitment to parents I felt the job required. I didn’t mind being questioned about grades or discipline. I admitted my mistakes and listened openly. Perhaps if I had clearer boundaries with parents, I would not have burned out so quickly.
It’s common for their to be a disconnect between administration and the teaching staff. Lack of candor and communication creates a climate of distrust. In my experience, administration changes often. Veteran teachers pick up the slack out of frustration.
Dedicated teachers get especially frustrated when administrators don’t deal with slacker teachers. They feel resentment that the administration doesn’t seem to care about the quality of teaching. Often, teacher evaluations are routine accolades rather than opportunities for mentoring and growth.
Administrators respond to parent pressure rather than supporting teaching staff. Teachers know if you really want to get something done, you send the parents to the principal to request it.
Teachers often don’t feel supported when it comes to behavior and discipline issues. Today the breadth of emotional problems is wide spread in our youth. Friends who are still in the trenches report strange and dangerous behavior such as children throwing chairs or hiding under tables eating paper. These cases require behavior support from experts. Teachers are not psychologists, and the administration often does not provide the services or support they need.
Teachers frequently feel like school board members do not listen to their concerns. Board members are elected officials. Few have a background in education.
School boards make important decisions. They are the boss of everyone in the hierarchy of the school system. Typically, they follow the superintendent’s recommendations. In my experience, it is rare to see dissension, and most votes pass unanimously.
Furthermore, school board meetings are in the evenings. Teachers are already exhausted from their work day (as probably are the school board members), and these meetings can last well into the evening. I’ve been to meetings that lasted until 11:00 pm. It’s hard to teach the next day even more exhausted.
I am grateful to all of my children’s teachers, even those that weren’t so great. It’s not an easy job. I sometimes think of going back. I miss the kids and supporting their learning. I don’t miss eight causes outline in Why Great Teachers Quit and How We Might Stop the Exodus. The general public doesn’t understand how little of teaching actually involves teaching these days. It’s what causes some great teachers to find new career paths.
As parents, I think it is helpful to understand how much your child’s teacher juggles. Support them and express your gratitude often!
Image: coyot / Pixabay
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