Hopelessness Makes Political Refugees of Educators

A colleague once shared that she was about to leave the teaching profession.  She was a mid-career teacher who just could not take it any longer.  Too much work-centered heartache had taken its toll.  At the point in her career where she should have been hitting her stride as a teacher, she said, “This teaching gig is for the birds.”

“Teaching is not for the birds,” I quipped. “Birds don’t get up early enough!”

It was nice to share a knowing chuckle.  Both of us were early risers who accomplished our best work done in the hours prior to sunrise.  It was during her quiet time before her children awakened where she organized lesson plans.  My papers were corrected over coffee prior to the arrival of the morning newspaper.

Permit me to ask an indiscreet question.  How long it would be before you grew weary of being compensated for only seventy percent of the hours you worked?

What will persuade you, my compatriots?  What will convince you that this society dedicates insufficient resources to the education of children?  What tales of trial and tribulation will reach into your heart and outrage you enough to compel you to immediate political action?

Nationally, over 50% of teachers surrender by year six. Locally, between 10% and 12% of our teachers have been leaving annually for years now.  Some leave to teach elsewhere.  Some leave for other professions.  Changing jobs is not something employees do for amusement or vengeance: Changing employers is listed among the top five sources of stress in the modern world.  So, what has driven educators to become a new class of migrant worker?  The reason for these departures can be summed up in two words: job dissatisfaction.

Compensation is not the sole driver of teacher turnover, although competitive salaries might help retain some in the profession. Working conditions can drive teachers to curse the day they chose their career.

Teacher flight is about

-class sizes that border on the absurd, and being told that class size is NOT a working condition.

-numerous non-instructional duties that steal from time for planning instruction and assessing learning.

-swallowing a sandwich whole at lunch so that you can administer a make-up assessment while simultaneously calling a parent during your so-called half-hour “duty-free lunch”.

-obsolete materials in the library or book room, and stone-age audio/visual devices in the age of laserdiscs and multi-media presentation.

-changing instruction to use the overhead projector in order to save paper only to be told that there is not enough money for the 600 watt lamps required to run the projectors.

-out-of-pocket expenses for classroom decorations and supplies.

-the absence of support personnel.   

-discovering that “wish-lists” are all too appropriately named. 

-watching children sit in undersized and broken furniture.

-a roof that leaks water and windows that let in the cold compelling gear for inclement weather while indoors.

-trying to talk louder than the four fans you had to purchase in order to push hot air around a 100+ degree classroom in May, June or September.

-no paper, soap or hot-water in the restrooms.

-wondering when, if ever, you might find time to use that restroom.

-being without a classroom for four years because you teach from a cart.

-not having access to your classroom during your planning period for four years because an itinerant cart-based teacher is there.

-losing precious planning periods to substitute for colleagues because absolutely nobody wants to be a substitute.

-utility rooms reincarnated as classrooms.

-students late to class because of  transportation problems while teachers are directed to stress the importance of punctuality as a life skill.

-bureaucrats and business folk who suggest that teachers need more tasks to accomplish.

losing weeks, perhaps months, of instructional time each year to bureaucrat-mandated, irrelevant testing designed to hold the education community’s collective feet to the fire for socio-economic circumstances totally beyond its control. 

et cetera… et cetera… et cetera.

And lest it be omitted, you really have not lived until you have performed the juggling act of teaching two grade levels in the same classroom at the same time, or two different courses in the same room at the same time.  Yes, this may help with staffing & space concerns, but it’s a safe bet that the originator of this “strategy” was not a classroom-based educator attempting to convey knowledge to the next generation.

The sum of such annoyances leads teachers to abandon the classroom. Individually, any of these conditions might be tolerable.  Considered collectively, they breed hopelessness which incites despair. Coping with despair ignites the instinct for self-preservation, both personal and professional. The two options are fight or flight, and flight is frequently the easier alternative.

Fortunately, interventions are within our reach. Most can be resolved by adequate funding for our schools and equitable distribution of resources.

 For every teacher that resigns outright, how many more will lack the skills to cope with challenging circumstances? How many more will eventually take those first small, unwilling steps toward diminished expectations? Who will replace the teachers that leave and what will be their qualifications and experience?   These invisible, unknowable statistics should terrify each of us.

Teachers want to teach.  At least initially, all teachers believe in the possibility of entering a room full of young people and inspiring them to learn.  What intrepid souls!  What unfettered idealists!  Yet, here in the wealthiest nation on the planet, less than one-third of a career suffices to grind unbridled optimism into dust.


[Adapted from an editorial page Commentary in May, 2000 in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal in May, 2000]

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