As I was riding along the other day, my favorite topic came on NPR: teacher shortages and why no one wants to become a teacher anymore. I hooted.
The announcers tossed out loose statistics that had no edges. Here’s one I remember from 20 years ago: 3 out of 5 new teachers quit within three years of starting their careers. Apparently, hiring and retaining has only gotten worse.
But before I get into why this is true, let me say what I always think when I hear about this loss: What are these freshly hired, and quickly disenchanted workers supposed to do now with that degree?
Back in the day, universities placed education majors in their “field experience” the very last semester of their schooling. Honestly, if you never experience the real work until you are almost finished with your degree and suddenly discover this is not the fantasy you had, what then? You are still likely to go into the career, hoping that once the kids are really yours, maybe you will like the career better. The stats say no.
Teachers are leaving in droves long before retirement.
Many universities have wisely started putting college students into real life settings as soon as possible, trying to give future teachers a taste before it is too late to set them on a more palatable career path.
One young woman comes to mind. A freshmen from a local college, she hoped to be a Middle School teacher and was assigned to spectate one of my high level and one of my low level senior classes. She came twice a week without a warm word for the kids, behaving as if it were just me and her against the world. She’d choose a desk with her back to my class and roll her eyes. When my students were gone, she would openly express how much she hated certain kids, and dreaded coming to my first period.
You guessed it: she couldn’t tolerate my low level Seniors who struggled not only with grammar but with sitting still and being polite. I loved the hell out of them. They made me laugh and were always game for something different, and slowly I taught them to enjoy Shakespeare and to become friends with the various structures of the verb “to be.” But my student teacher cringed over how loud that one laughed. “God. . .you could cut glass with that cackle.” Or how that one talked back: “Didn’t his Gran-momma teach him nothing?”
I felt no qualms at saying to this 27-year-old university student, “First, as a new teacher, the likelihood that you will get the cushy classes with well-behaved teenagers is nil. Second, if this stuff is setting you off, you might think about choosing a different career.” As a college freshmen, she had all the time in the world to study business or law instead. I have no idea what became of her. I was just glad that she was at the beginning of her college adventure and had time to change her mind, so that some poor, undeserving class would not end up with her anyway.
But that disillusionment between reality and what teacher-wannabes fantasize is only part of the problem.
The NPR report interviewed former (and current) teachers who complained about pay and respect, long the issue. Yes, trying to buy bread and pay the mortgage is a pretty good reason to leave a profession.
However, I never whined about the pay in the beginning; few government employees are going to make it rich off their salaries. I counted my fabulous benefits as part of my pay. As long as the state kept up with inflation in other regards, I was okay.
Lately, more often than not, pay increases do not keep up with the cost of living. In 1995, starting pay in one county in my state was 31K, in another 26K. Twenty years ago, starting pay in my county was 36K. Today it is 41K. How does $5000 cover the fact that the median house price in our area is now $250K, more than double, from $119K in 2001?
Lack of respect rather than lack of funds is even harder to accept.
Some people have dreams of showing up naked to work, or forgetting that they have some big meeting. In my nightmares, my classroom gets out of control, like a big, mouthy, spontaneous party and I’m the voiceless person no one notices. . .And children are not stupid. They have been led to believe that “Those who can, do. . .Those who can’t, teach. . .” Why should they automatically respect me just because I am a human being?
The concept that teachers have to earn a child’s respect is so strongly part of modern day society. Today’s television depicts children and teenagers as far superior in brain power and social credibility than any adult on the show. . .if there is an adult on the show; and most teachers on children’s television act crazy, cruel, or half dead. No wonder students can be so insolent.
But is this really a new problem? Books and movies from earlier decades prove there have always been some classrooms that are out of control. Ever read To Kill a Mocking bird or The Chalkboard Jungle, written long before my time, where students are threatening the lives of their teachers? This idea that back in the day children behaved. . . but they are misbehaving now is quaint. Teachers have always needed a bag of tricks for good classroom management.
However, though history proves disruptive kids have always acted up, when it comes to today’s discipline rules, there is a difference between generations.
When my parents were students, they could be expelled for chewing gum: my generation, I was paddled for skipping lunch period to go to McDonald’s and cell phones equaled a panel (expulsion trial), but today children carry guns and cellphones to class.
So maybe it isn’t the kids, but the administration’s rules that have changed that new teachers can’t deal with?
Differing rules and administrative attitudes along with differing teaching environments can drive teachers away.
Schools can vary dramatically, where at one, the biggest problem is cheating and at another the heaviest load is violence on a daily basis. Decades ago in a rough south ATL school, droves of kids would amble into our classes 10-20 minutes late, and there was nothing done about it from bottom to top. There, a school-wide, full-blown riot sent a teacher to the hospital after police in riot gear stormed the place; covered up, the event made the nightly news only as a simple fight between two boys. Today my son’s high school will give him a detention for that sort of tardiness and the halls are empty when the first bell rings; plus, in contrast, the news reported a massive cheating scandal across a grade level because the principal was cracking down seriously and wanted the public to know.
Where and when and who make a difference in teachers’ careers. The “tougher” the school district, the harder it is to keep teachers. Why stay when faculty know the teacher up the road is making the same money for far less stress.
Some of the hardest “misbehavior” for a teacher to deal with now is a total lack of concern for due dates or grades. And parents are not on our side, believe me. Nor is administration. The latest trend, particularly in urban areas, is to allow multiple retakes of tests or to assign loose due dates. What teacher has the time to rewrite every quiz, test, exam, and then re-administer these to kids repeatedly, or ethically grade a semester’s work from their students in the last few weeks of school? And are teachers being paid for this repeated effort? Of course, not!
If an architect has to revamp a drawing four or five times until the client is happy, he gets paid for every single version, every single hour. If a doctor has to retest for more possibilities or repeat a surgical procedure, he earns a ton of new money . .teachers don’t. I had kids who would not study at all, hoping they could pass without effort first. And THEN, if they performed poorly, they would ask to retake the test once they studied. Makes perfect sense to me. I would have done the same as a kid. But as a teacher, my afternoons could be filled with retesting rather than planning or advising.
To me, a bigger, but related problem to discipline and lesson planning is that teachers seem to be required to be entertainers now. No longer can a teacher say, “Read this,” and then explain how to or what to. We have to come up with activities that compare to a NASA or Disney World experience, smile and pander and drop one-liners every few seconds. Though I usually would try to oblige, I once had a teen rate my lesson on a day I was stressed and exhausted and just wanted them all to sit quietly and read. (Teachers have those days, too, now and then.) Typically my biggest fan, he said as he left the room, “Ahh, you really missed this one, Ms. I give you a D for today.”
I wish I could blame television for that annoying expectation. But district Bigwigs are the ones behind this idea that we need to be Jerry Seinfeld, Abraham Lincoln, Oprah Winfrey, and Bill Nye the Science Guy all in one. Teachers can be down rated on their principal visits (AKA reviews) if a girl in the back row quickly checks her makeup in her phone screen; we are supposed to be that on-our-toes about holding kids’ attention.
And bosses are often the worst in education; often they are men who went into education to be a coach and really never wanted to teach social studies, or worse, left the classroom because they hated teaching. I had more than one boss who had never been in the classroom, which means we have people telling us what to do who do not know how to do it themselves.
One woman in particular had jumped from counselor to assistant principal, and we suffered all her grand ideas. . .you know. . .old stuff that was new again, yet she had no interest in listening to experience. She believed naysayers were automatically negative, rather than being smart or weathered. She would curry the young, new teachers, and punish those that did not cheer her every move. (Ever taught a freshmen Lit class with forty kids while the other freshmen lit teacher has six students, but the administrator refuses to balance the numbers? Talk about punishment.)
At first, I thought this boss’s attitude was a sign of ageism, until I realized she just wanted sycophants, and figured the newbies were easier to shape in that regard, and the experience teachers impotent against her.
Unfortunately for students, the new boss’s and her proteges’ inexperience made them all ignorant of how their “newly discovered” bullets were not magic. Whole Language, Basal Reading, Phonics? In, out, and in again based on the whims of administrators who never taught. I had one boss who threatened to fire or at least transfer us if she ever caught us teaching grammar or mechanics in isolation, so trendy was her latest idea. At no point could we map and practice exercises on the board showing kids how to use apostrophes or conjugate verbs. . .
As pay-for-performance becomes more of reality, teachers are becoming more cut throat, more willing to toss each other under the bus in order to secure the whatevers from the powers that be. Performance is often marked by how well one teacher’s kids do compared to other teachers’ students. My ex-husband, an elementary school teacher was given a PDP-a Professional Development Plan is the equivalent of a shape up or ship out warning-because 20% more of his students did poorly on a statewide test compared to his peers’ students. Four of each of the other teachers’ kids failed, five of his did. So ONE child more and he deserves to be fired?
The fact that he actually had more students overall than the other three teachers did not matter. . . Notice the way the numbers were skewed? The principal wanted to prove to the public and her bosses that she took standardized testing and performance-linked jobs seriously, so whomever had the most students fail at any grade level, got a demerit and a threat, no matter the fallacy in logic.
With those sorts of principals, teachers are less likely to share good lessons even when forced to collaborate if they can earn the favor of a boss by having better scores or better favor. (Just one kid more?)
We already muscle for rank over classroom location, subjects like AP, class sizes. Now throw in pay for performance, and add in a faulty way of measuring performance, and what sort of peer environment is percolating?
Plus, we know that the concept of better is very loose. I’m sure that in every profession there are those people that do a half-assed job, yet still gain accolades.
Why wouldn’t new teachers or even seasoned teachers quit if they have other options? And is this the environment parents want their children in?
Finally, the dirty truth that no one outside of teaching gives a shit about. . .the biggest reason teachers jump ship: The hours seriously suck if a teacher really is going to do a good job.
Sure, anyone can never read student essays, arbitrarily jotting a grade on the top. (I worked with a woman who would say, Freshmen don’t need to fail. . .” and would give out high grades to undeserving students. How easy is that!!) But if you do want children to learn, and you do have an ethical system about who earns excellence, then you have to put in hours that no other profession requires. This is why people gripe about pay.
Yes, new lawyers and new doctors have ridiculous weeks. But when I was first bringing home 31K with 7 years of college and two degrees, multiple certifications, my buddy the Ob-Gyn was freshly hired at 180K. His 70 hour weeks were well-rewarded. And. . .what’s more he was paid while he was still in training, whereas student teachers basically work a fulltime job (their field experience) for no money. True, the doctor’s education cost big bucks, but his school loans can be paid back with that salary within a year or two.
Grading student work is a whole extra job. My work day, I had to be in the door by 6:45 and not out before 3:00. Those are the required hours, but all teachers are there much longer. And if not, they are still working when they get home and through the weekends.
Teachers are in the classrooms or monitoring the hallways for 7 hours straight and are not supposed to be caught grading at those times. Our attention should always be on the children. That 8th hour assigned as a required planning period is eaten up with meetings and responsibilities, or just plain rest. The lunch break is 20 minutes tops; since teachers are last out of the room and first back, this short time gives us just enough minutes to run to the restroom and stuff a sandwich in our mouths. And in some states, teachers have to dine with (and monitor) their students, so it isn’t even a break. Some bosses don’t mind if we try to catch up in those minutes between classes, or in the mornings; others require us on duty in the hallways the second the bell rings.
Yes, I get summers off which is one reason I don’t sweat the salary, but if you do the math of how many hours I worked in 10 months, NOT COUNTING the required extracurricular activities that young teachers are contracted to do, I worked enough hours for a year-round job and then some and made peanuts. Now toss is how most new teachers cannot get a job unless they contract to also coach some sport or activity an extra 20 hours a week at cents per hour, and you can see that we build up resentments over being exploited like crazy.
When I taught at a local university as a part-time adjunct, people would ask what I do. You know, meeting someone at a dinner or some event, they’d hear my answer and sometimes become a little self-conscious; they’d make some humorous, self-deprecating remark about their grammar-as if I were policing them silently in my head-or wonder aloud about how smart I must be. But now, upon hearing I teach high school, there is a completely different response as if the air had just shifted and a nasty smell had arrived. You can see their respect level drop as their eyes dart away or worse, they confront me about their negative opinions about public education. I am the same person, with the same credentials, but the respect I earned was very different.
I find that hard simply because what public school teachers do is so essential and honestly so much more important than being a university adjunct, and I love my work and my students. I assume this is a remnant of a time when children’s teachers were often servants and are now civil “servants”. But it is a sad trend that simply makes a hard job easier to leave for many people.
Those of who stay, are we masochists?
No, some stay because there are no other options. Some stay because we can schedule around our children. Most stay because we love what we do and know how important we are. A month ago, I was vacationing in a mountain town three hours away. A young man pushing a stroller stopped me on the streets of the charming village, and asked me if I remembered teaching him. I certainly did, though so grown now, in his thirties, I barely recognized him. He said, “I had to tell you what you meant to me,” and introduced me to his family, asked if I was on social media. Two weeks ago, dining with old friends, one of them asked me if I recalled teaching a certain student named Jane.
My friend, said, “Well, I ran into her with her family and she was asking about you. You taught her freshmen and senior year,” Yes, I replied. “Well, she says even with college, you are still the best teacher she ever had and still looks at one of the projects you had her complete.” I had just had one of those nightmares about losing class control that morning and sure did need to hear that!
Then last week, I was dining with my boys at a local steak house and heard a familiar cackle split the air. The girl whom that college student hated was now a graduated, young woman working her way through college as a hostess. She caught sight of me and ran across the foyer, yelling, “OMG, I can’t believe it’s you!” and hugged me so hard I thought I’d fall over.
Those experiences, knowing I made a positive impact is what makes the profession worth staying for many teachers! But unless something changes to bring in more strong educators, what will become of the profession?