The ABC’s of Teacher Turnover

Walking a mile in the shoes of a rank-and-file public school teacher is not generally an option for the public, but understanding the challenges confronted by professional educators might serve to elevate the public discourse on the topic of improving our schools. Grasping the complexity and intensity of the teaching experience is critical to moving the debate about allocating appropriate human and material resources to the education of all children.

      Imagine yourself as a teacher. You enter your classroom to look out on a sea of more than thirty faces. A few smiles;  a few frowns;  too few students seem actively engaged in your agenda as heads are already pressed down on the desk before instruction even begins. None seem particularly enthused about the task at hand as you walk them through the warm-up. One student sighs when you begin to give the directions. A few classmates perform compliance rituals but intellectual focus is not observable. The ten minute homework assignment, if completed, is partial and poorly written. Your students recall little from yesterday’s lesson. You help the three who were absent to catch up. Three more are absent today.

     For the next fifty minutes you aspire to fulfill your role as a purveyor of knowledge, as a shaper of young minds, as an architect of America’s future. But, instead of conveying knowledge you must spend ten to fifteen minutes addressing classroom management issues (i.e. student disputes, off-task behavior, outright misbehavior, passes, transitions, etc). You are interrupted a handful of times : knocks at the door, the public address system, boisterous hall walkers.  Ironically, you think to yourself, “Today’s lesson is going fairly well…”

Now imagine that for a few minutes you are telepathic and can divine the mostly-unspoken inner secrets of your students. Nothing can really prepare the casual observer for the sheer tally of emotional baggage that arrives in any given classroom room each and every day …

(Each of these caricatures is based on an actual student. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.)

  • Allen is a teenage alcoholic.
  • Betty is regularly beaten.
  • Christine is a “cutter” and cannot be trusted with sharps.
  • Diane has dyslexia.
  • Elaine is an emancipated adult.
  • Frank carries a firearm.
  • Greg & Gina are bullied for being openly gay .
  • Harry is HIV positive; Harriet is homeless.
  • Irene is an illegal alien (and evading the INS!)
  • Jay was released from jail in June.
  • Kevin’s brother  was killed in a drive-by.
  • Larry has been a  latch-key child since the second grade.
  • Mary was molested by her stepfather.
  • Nadine appears narcoleptic.
  • Oscar is an orphan in foster care.
  • Pam is pregnant (again!)
  • Quinton is quitting school.
  • Rachel has been raped.
  • Steve is suicidal; Sylvia is into substance abuse.
  • Thomas is twenty and still in high school. 
  • Ursula is unruly.
  • Vickie lost her virginity at eleven.
  • Warren works full-time to help the family.
  • Xavier is uninsured, but needs x-rays.
  • Yvette cares for her five younger siblings.
  • …and Zoe has a 0.0 GPA.

-Thirty children.

-Thirty challenges.

-This is your smallest class.

A feeling of dread mounts as you entertain the thought that you have six such classes on your caseload, and realize that you will never know all the baggage that your students transport to class. You may find yourself experiencing a twinge of guilt for no longer wanting to know. With caseloads approaching 500 students, how much support will the guidance counselors and administration provide?

     Few professions can claim to have a more altruistic labor base than teaching. Teachers want to teach. Teachers dream of planning and presenting perfect lessons. They seek to motivate learners. They aspire to hold learners accountable for their learning and relish the reward of student work demonstrating growth over time. 

 Go to your child’s school and spend an entire school day. Be sure to arrive at 6 a.m. and leave at 9 p.m. You will find teachers and administrators who arrive hours early and depart hours late. Teachers sponsor clubs; coach sports; offer tutoring; correct never-ending stacks of papers late into the night; prepare lesson plans outside the contract day; inform parents of their child’s progress; coax, cajole, inspire, beg and plead in the hope of getting students to learn. Then, they attempt to comply with the directives to personalize all their lesson plans to address the needs of each individual student. If they are fortunate,  they will accomplish some small portion of the task in their “copious” planning time of a so-called 50 uninterrupted minutes. More likely, however, they will polish a lesson plan, correct one class set of papers, call parents,  confer with colleagues, update records, write disciplinary referrals and, hopefully, find time to address biological needs.

And, all this educators do for a yearly salary that would not inspire loyalty in a good car mechanic. 

The realization soon sets in: This work is never finished! Even if a teacher were able to devote 24/7 to the profession, the “to do” list would never grow shorter. The question then becomes: What portion of your personal life do you sacrifice for the greater good?  Unfortunately, it will NOT be the part time job you took to make ends meet. Nor will it be the coursework for your Master’s that you must complete (and fund!) to maintain your teaching license.

In the 1980’s John I. Goodlad reported in  A Place Called School  that the top 50% of teaching candidates -as measured by class-rank and GPA –  leave the profession within seven years.  How can this be?  When did teaching become an avocation instead of a vocation?

The reasons are many.  But according to Goodlad, while money was not even listed as a priority for choosing the profession, it rose to second place on the list as a reason for abandoning it. Working conditions were first. Teaching is now considered a stepping stone on the career track; time in the classroom has evolved into little more than a résumé enhancer.

The first round of departures are generally the “pie-in-sky” idealists. They are usually novices. They are often under the impression that teaching will be fun.  It is not too long before all those holidays are simply time to catch up.  Sometimes it can be something simple that sends them packing… Perhaps a student requests they perform an anatomically impossible act…  Perhaps an entire class refuses to complete assignments…  Perhaps it will be a student load that approaches 200 and a belief that they must correct every student paper… 

In a macabre ritual reminiscent of the first-night in The Shawshank Redemption, senior teachers have been known to run winner-take-all “pools” based on the date and/or person to first resign. There is quite often a winner in the first weeks of the school year.  One year, the first resignation occurred before the pool could be formed; another year, a prospective teacher signed a contract, then investigated the reputation of the school in question, and failed to report for duty.  Seldom does a year go by that some novice educator fails to wave the white flag before the first holiday break. How can a someone spend four years or more preparing for a career and still not be aware of what they will encounter?

The novices are followed closely by the mercenaries. The mercenaries quickly calculate the grossly inadequate economic return for the energy expended in challenging educational scenarios. These teacher candidates sometimes find another school system with higher pay scales. Often, super-qualified and highly sought after,  someone in private industry makes an offer that doubles and sometimes triples their current salary.  Au revoir les enfants! Greener pastures beckon!  Who can blame them? It is no small challenge to raise a family on the wages offered beginning teachers. 

In the range of two-to-six years come the first wave of premature burnout victims.  This last stage of early departures is usually the direct result of other life priorities. Usually, these individuals have been committing the time it takes to perform the job of educating their students. The seventy-hour work week of the first-year teacher has dwindled down to the fifty-five hour week of the more experienced crew, but there is little room for improvement beyond that.  Suddenly, they find themselves no longer able to do the job.   Marriage is proposed; a child is born; a parent becomes ill; the job of teaching well becomes an untenable burden instead of a joy. Teaching is a joy until life happens.

Who decides to stay for the long run?  Altruists for whom money is not of primary importance and who understand the importance of education to the next generation. Specialists for whom the passion for  an intellectual discipline affords fewer opportunities in the private sector.  Pragmatists who, if not entirely accepting of what they can not change, are at least able to discover ways to work around the barriers. 

Even the best of these will get worn down eventually. No matter how committed, no matter how much you love the job,  weariness is inevitable.  Thus begins the quest for short-cuts where,  at least occasionally,  one succumbs to the temptation is to teach to the lowest-common-denominator.

Our society pays much lip-service to the importance of education in our democratic society.  To date we have only talked the talk; we have yet to demonstrate a collective willingness to walk the walk.  Never forget that the intellect of a child is a fragile seed hoping to land on fertile soil.  We can no longer afford to lose half to barren ground.  It is up to all of us to turn and amend that soil to give the seeds of intellect a chance to grow.  Teachers want only the tools and sufficient time to turn that soil, because teachers really are the gardeners of humankind. We must commit the resources necessary for the education of all children. To quote Mikhail Gorbachev, “God will not forgive us if we fail.”


[This is a much revised version of my first commentary in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal. The original version, much longer, appeared circa 1998.]

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