Let me begin by saying, “I am a lifer.”
When I began teaching in 1979, I had no idea that I would still be teaching 35 years later, and yet I remain. Going and going and going just like that silly Energizer bunny.
Yes, 35 tears and still teaching. My goal is to make it to 50 years (I would be circling 70 years of age at that point, but age is just a number, right?). Any teacher who could make it for 50 years in the classroom should receive more than a chicken dinner and a fancy pin; of that, I am certain. Longevity is a wonderful thing, but these days, nothing in the world seems to last. Especially teachers.
Current education trends show that more and more teachers are leaving the profession. The consequences are far reaching. In the classroom, teacher turnover leaves a mark. A recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research that observed New York City elementary classrooms over five years found that turnover lowered kids’ average math test scores by at least seven points and their English scores by at least six points.
More alarmingly, the top three countries that lead the world in test scores—South Korea, Finland and Singapore—also boast low year-to-year teacher turnover rates at 1 percent, 2 percent and 3 percent respectively, according to the McKinsey consulting firm.
“Losing even one good teacher is losing one too many,” one principal observed.
Yet the reasons why teachers depart point to another troublesome trend.
“They’re not considered professionals anymore by the district, by the state and by the federal government,” says Rachel Garcia, teacher mentor in AISD.“What’s making me leave is what we’re doing to children,” she says. “We have created this system where all we do is teach for the test and then test and test some more.”
Teachers are not fans of the state’s latest incarnation of teacher evaluations either, which consist of a matrix that grades teachers on student test performances, teacher attendance, classroom observations and teacher “professionalism” conducted by upper-level administrators. Texas recently revamped the evaluation system, but it still reflects illogical expectations beyond the teacher's control.
Elaine Bowers, former English teacher for AISD, argues that standardized tests miss covering skills like “composing a research paper that takes a stand and uses that research to back up opinions. None of that can be tested on a short multiple-choice test.”
I agree. Objective tests do not truly assess what a student knows nor are they a valid predictor of future success. Over the years I observed that some of my weakest students went on to complete advanced degrees fueled by sheer determination (and more often than not, with a great deal of family support) while some of the brightest stars faded away and now eek out a meager existence well below their ability level.
Another important factor left out of the evaluations is measuring teachers on their abilities to forge long-term, personal relationships with their students. “We are ignoring the importance of that, and there are people who do really, really well with that who don’t get credit and they should.” We all remember that one teacher who really connected to us in some way and made is stop and think a little longer, a little better, a little higher. That skill set is not on the current evaluation form.
Some teachers just tire of the game that is always in a state of flux and constant revision. One former teacher didn't bother. Now he stocks wine at Trader Joe’s. If he wants to go back into teaching, he can inquire about the new standards, the Common Core expectations, etc…, but why bother when he now makes $7,000 more a year than he did in the public school system?
“It ended up being a bunch of baloney for a difficult job,” he says. Still, he concedes that he was just learning how to teach and would have probably stayed in the profession had he received more support to help him improve his skills after receiving mediocre evaluations.
“That was the thing that was really hard to accept,” he says. “Three years and I was just getting the hang of it. It probably would have taken two more years, and I would have been at the top of my game.”
And therein lays the real issue. Few teachers jump out of the gate and win the race their first year. Like everything, trial and error are important aspects and veteran teachers can confirm that they did not become effective, awesome educators overnight. If we want great teachers who can help their students achieve great things, then we must retain them and train them.
Public schools are not the only ones who suffer at the hands of higher ups who dispose of imperfect teachers at the first sign of low student test scores or other symptoms of mediocrity caused by inexperience.
Private and Charter School Top 5 Reasons to Leave
1. Lack of support from administration and/or parents (reactionary climate)
2. Workplace conditions/lack of staff cohesion or professionalism/ too many duties/few resources
3. Teaching assignment (too many preps or teaching out of content area)
4. Job security (usually no contract--at will hires)
5. Salary/benefits (often not competitive with public schools)
Public School Top 5 Reasons to Leave
1. Test culture
2. Salary (not enough to support a family without working partner or multiple jobs)
3. Lack of respect, dangerous environment
4. Poor work-life balance, multiple preparation planning periods, excessive duties
5. Class size, lack of resources, lack of programs (fine arts)
Through the years I have taught at two large low socio-economic, ethnically diverse urban schools (with a child care center) , an affluent Catholic school with all the parochial bells and whistles , a small private school for Muslim children grades K-12 , and a public charter school with a half day program. And after all of these varied experiences with young people, I have learned one very important thing. There is one a fundamental truth and overarching idea. All kids have the same needs and deserve quality instruction by committed professionals who know how to help them to achieve their goals.
The challenge to find the best way to teach them is also the same regardless of the school. Who knows their abilities and learning styles better than the classroom teacher? They spend more hours each week with teachers than with their own families. So ultimately, teachers should have the power to shape their instruction (with guidance and support) without worrying about making ends meet, job security, divisive colleagues, or admin who do not know where or how to draw the lines with their staff.
Sure, there are some teachers who do not belong in the classroom. And there are others who simply do not share the same vision as their school. But these teachers are easily identified, and many times they can become great teachers with the right support and supervision. For those few who can't make the grade, they should be discharged from their position and replaced with someone with a genuine respect and passion for learning.
So the next time someone posits the question, “What is wrong with our schools and how do we fix them?” perhaps we should begin by investing in our teachers and growing them into the superheroes that everyone hopes they will be. They are most likely not the problem but rather part of the solution.