The Real Reason Teachers Are Leaving
America is facing an unprecedented crisis in education. Public schools face an astounding teacher shortage caused by teachers leaving the profession. Even when universities manage to increase the number of students graduating from teaching programs, 40% of new teachers leave the profession after only five years. So, what is the answer?
We know what the standard response is…
- Increase the amount of students graduating from teaching programs.
- Institute more “teacher support” in the form of mandated professional development.
- “Reward” teachers by tying their students’ test scores to their salaries.
- Hire more administrative and instructional support staff to “motivate” and “train” teachers.
- Purchase costly “one-size-fits-all” curriculum with scripted lessons.
- Hire college graduates with little or no coursework in education.
Here are some not-so-well-known responses …
- Replace teachers with computer programs and online learning.
- Hire teachers from other countries.
- Increase student to teacher ratio to 40 (or more):1.
Do you know what all these resolutions lack? Real teacher input. And ironically, that summarizes why teachers are leaving. If we want teachers to stay in teaching, we need to value them. (And no, I’m not talking free doughnuts in the staff lounge or the cursory and ambivalent “We appreciate you” speech once a year.)
So, how do we value them? I’ve got an idea. Let’s hear from actual teachers!
“Many administrators in low performing districts have never been in the classroom, yet have the power to dictate to ‘already superb’ teachers how to teach, thus ruining what could have been a great education for those students, killing off any hopes for higher learning and scores. Dignity for staff and student is gone!” — NEA Today
“Better pay matters a great deal, but it isn’t the main reason why so many teachers leave. Most teachers leave because they are pushed to reduce what they do into mentally convenient numbers and easy-to-digest language rather than focus on learning how to help human beings become their best selves and navigate a complex world. I can’t see that kid who walks through my door — who didn’t have breakfast or whose parents just got divorced — and think that his number on his latest test is the most important thing about that child on that day. Education has become test-and-data obsessed. The schools are being run a little bit more like on a business model of constantly collecting data and then (that’s) driving all of our decisions. It’s a shift that eroded emphasis on the craft of teaching and seeing students as individuals.” — The Atlantic
“My first year, my principal called me into his office and told me to only teach to the standards, not teach anything outside them, and to not tell my students I was trying to prepare them for the real world or college. I started looking for a way out right then.” — The Atlantic
“I am an intelligent, well-educated adult with two masters’ degrees and 11 years teaching experience who has traveled and studied abroad extensively, but … we are all too often treated by leadership at all levels and all those involved in the ‘school reform’ movement like idiot children who can’t tell left from right — it’s insulting, demeaning, and absolutely worthless how ‘educational experts’ who make far more money than I do tell us how to educate….” — Washington Post
“Getting out of the classroom was the best thing for me. The nonsensical testing and the collection of data is such a waste of time. Teachers go into the profession with the intention of helping kids, not doing to testing to justify their jobs.” — We Are Teachers
“Schools are now head-count driven for money. This has made an environment of keeping kids at school, at all cost. Usually, to teachers becoming babysitters to unruly , unmotivated students..” — We Are Teachers
“I also have to agree that this is one of the most disrespected positions to be in…from needing doctor notes because they don’t believe you have an appointment or are sick with all the wasted time in meetings, meetings, meetings.” — We Are Teachers
“My foremost reason was lack of administrative-down effective discipline… uh, lack of any discipline at all. All attempts to discipline students were trashed” — We Are Teachers
“I wanted to be a model teacher for the district, so I worked hard to make sure my lessons were incredible. But then, I would have an evaluation and be docked because I didn’t, “clearly display the learning objective on the board,” or, some other weird nuance quickly mentioned at the end of a teacher meeting.” — Viktor James
“In the midst of all of this… our response is we need to be “21st Century” schools. 1 to 1 student to technology. Oh. Okay. So forget the basics of relationship building and hands on learning. Kids already can’t read social cues and conduct themselves appropriately in social settings… let’s toss more devices at them because it looks good on our website. During an interview, one division asked me “how are you with technology? That’s important to us”. Uhhh… I hear Bobo the chimpanzee is pretty tech savvy… I consider myself pretty great with kids.” — Jesicca Gentry
Basically, teachers want and need respect. Over 40% have at least one Master’s degree, and many have years of invaluable experience, so let’s treat them as professionals.
For those of you in positions of power to make meaningful change, I challenge you to do the following:
- Let teachers teach. That means no more weekly data meetings and biweekly staff meetings covering information that could have been covered in an email.
- Don’t make teachers give up the small amount of paid prep time they’re allotted to sub, fix broken technology, attend meetings, etc.
- Allow for bottom-up change instead of top-down mandates. Take teachers’ input seriously and let it drive innovation. No, more government legislation is not the answer.
- Take all the money spent on the next-best-thing (1:1 devices, smart boards, another brand new curriculum, more tests, computer learning programs, highly paid educational consultants, team building exercises) and use it to raise teacher pay.
- Create a student discipline plan that works. The greatest teacher in the world can still have a student that is disruptive to the point where teaching cannot occur. Placing the entire blame and responsibility for discipline on the teacher is not the answer, and hurts all the other students’ education in the process.
- Limit testing. Assessments should be useful, meaningful, and realistic in their administration. Using over a month of instructional time per year on standardized exams and exam prep is counter-intuitive. Small, teacher-driven assessments that are given quickly, and provide instant, meaningful data should be the norm.
- Include ALL staff in the education of students. Every person in a school can have a powerful impact on students. Teachers are not the only ones “educating”. Value the opinions and work of everyone — cafeteria workers, janitors, secretaries, nurses, librarians, etc. Working together takes the pressure off teachers feeling they alone are responsible for students’ success.
- Let teachers drive professional development. Don’t make all teachers take the same PD. And, for goodness’ sake, stop calling it “training.” Teachers are not Labrador retrievers.
- Give teachers more say in curriculum development. Spending millions on the latest Pearson package doesn't make academic excellence. Use that money to pay teachers to create a meaningful and effective curriculum for your school, instead of funding a CEO’s next yacht purchase.
- Provide more services for families struggling outside of the schools, so teachers don’t have to double as social workers. Don’t get me wrong. Teachers will always care and do whatever it takes for kids, but it shouldn’t all be on their shoulders.
I’m sure I’ve left something out, but I think you understand the gist of it. The vast majority of educators go into teaching because they care deeply about children and want to make a difference. And (here’s the kicker), they go into teaching knowing they won’t be paid what they’re worth. And yet, they show up, day after day, working unpaid evenings and weekends just to do their jobs well. The very least we can give them is respect.