When I started my teaching career as a first-grade teacher I pictured myself doing the things all my elementary teachers did: reading aloud to kids daily, monitoring recess, checking papers with the red colored pencils, and smiling sweetly at little ones as they learned to read and write.
In the beginning, I did all those things and more and loved my job. But that was at a private school and before the days of No Child Left Behind, Common Core Standards, and billions of dollars being spent on standardized testing each year.
That was when I could teach children about animals by taking them to the marsh behind our school and show them how to look for deer tracks and trees that had been felled by beavers.
That was when I could read Old Yeller to them because I liked it, not because it was on the list of books required to read.
That was when teaching was about educating eager minds, using teachable moments, pairing students with books of interest, and engaging them in the world around them.
Much has changed in education
Today, I train teachers on a literacy tool aimed at supporting literacy instruction in the elementary grades. I present webinars and several times a year I visit schools and present to them as part of their professional development training.
Everywhere I go I hear a similar version of the same story. Teachers are under enormous pressure to ensure that students master state standards and pass the state assessments. Assessments change often (based on standards) and teacher expectations change almost yearly.
*On a side note, I have no objection to creating standards for student achievement, what I do object to is the emphasis on standardized testing and the pressure it puts on schools, parents, children, and teachers.
Constant changes and too much on their plates
Sometimes the tool I am training them on is one of four or five supplemental programs they are expected to learn, master, and use with fidelity in the classroom — that is on top of the curriculum and knowing the standards as well.
In addition to that, administrators change tools and/or curriculum so often that teachers barely have time to learn the tool let alone implement with fidelity. Teachers rarely have a say in any of these decisions yet they are the ones left with the responsibility to use the resources to support students.
Sometimes they get support in the form of coaches or support specialists, but not always. I see teachers walking from session to session at their PDs with arms and bags full of new materials to learn. By the time they come to me they often have what I call the deer-in-the-headlight look and if they are a newer educator they are completely overwhelmed.
Is anybody listening?
When they feel it is safe to do so, some confide in me how overwhelmed they are or how they most likely will never use this wonderful tool that I am training them on because they have too many other things to implement. I can only sigh and wonder how taxpayers and parents would feel if they knew the money being wasted each year on programs and tools that teachers don’t use — not to mention new editions of textbooks and the millions of dollars that go to state testing.
One time, a group of first and second-grade teachers sat back in their chairs, crossed their arms and gave me the stink eye as I began to present. I felt the chill in the room and the disinterested looks on their faces told me that I was wasting their time and mine.
I wondered what the problem was until one teacher pulled me aside and said, “I probably shouldn’t say this but I feel bad at how they are treating you. You see, we liked the program we had before and now we have to learn this new one on top of the four other programs we are required to use and it’s just too much. Because it’s supplemental and not required none of us are going to use it.”
The ongoing pressure and never-ending stress of keeping up with the whims of new administrators, ever-changing standards and expectations, along with learning new curriculum and supplemental tools is only one level of difficulty for school teachers.
The hurdles are many and also include increasing behavior problems that prohibit teachers from spending time on actual teaching, concerns over safety, the political drama around levies and raises, not to mention the busyness of today’s families that has lessened parental involvement and support.
I have tremendous respect for the teachers that stay in the classroom (Ryan Fan and Tracy Gerhardt-Cooper are two of these dedicated individuals) and despite all the obstacles still greet their students with smiles and manage to inspire generations of learners.
When critics and naysayers complain about teachers asking for more money, I shake my head and think, if they only knew what teachers do each day and how hard it has become for teachers to sustain their passion for this undermined profession.
I am grateful that my career has taken me to new opportunities in education but when friends and family ask me if I’d go back to being a classroom teacher, I laugh and shake my head NO emphatically. I am so certain about this that I let my teaching license lapse and have made no effort to renew it despite having a master’s degree in literacy. I also removed my state retirement account and rolled it into an IRA.
Teachers Have an Obligation to Involve Parents in Helping Their Child Learn to Read
Reading aloud is the most important thing parents can do to support literacy
The statistics prove that I am not alone in my decision to walk away from the classroom. Consider these facts.
- In the U.S., 44% of new teachers leave teaching within five years. This is a high attrition rate and one that should be alarming to all of us. This means huge turnover rates at schools and should make us wonder what is so unsatisfying about teaching that would cause half the new teachers who spent four or more years on a teaching degree to ditch the profession for something else. Of course, some may leave to start families or other personal reasons, still, the data shows that teachers leave the profession at a higher rate than many other professionals, including police officers.
- Reasons teachers quit include everything from lack of support from administration, lack of resources, discipline issues, challenging work conditions (especially in the inner-city schools), and too much pressure and stress for student performance that has become developmentally inappropriate in recent years. This article from We Are Teachers details these reasons and more. We need to do a better job supporting teachers who are in it to win it!
- It's not just new teachers who are leaving!
After teaching 30 years, Bonnie D. made the heartbreaking choice to leave. She simply felt the system was no longer acting in the best interest of her students. “Everything became all about passing the ‘almighty test,’” she says. “My administrators decided to concentrate only on those students who could perform well. Call me old fashioned, but I always did my best to reach and teach every student in my room, not simply the ones who had the best chance of passing a test.” — from Why Teachers Quit
I wish I could say things like Bonnie’s experience were unusual, but they are not (by the way, those kids she was told to work with are called “bubble kids” — students who are so close to passing that extra support would help. Those who are very far behind? Some schools simply don’t have time to catch them up).
I worked at a school that decided to only focus on math since that was where the test scores were low. Okay, but if a child can’t read they can’t do math well, either. This school also used millions of dollars in Title I funds each year to “outsource” student tutoring — subsidizing parents who took their children to expensive tutoring centers — instead of providing this instruction in-house with reading and math specialists.
Despite all these challenges many teachers remain and manage to rise above the stress, but I know the challenges that lie between the whiteboard and the playground and I choose to continue in my role as a support to these brave educators!
Thank a teacher today and get involved in your child’s classroom as much as you can. Attend board meetings, ask questions, vote for school board members, and make your voice heard. Teachers need your support and your vote of confidence!
I still love teaching children to read and have dedicated my entire career to ensuring that children have the skills and strategies they need to become lifelong readers. Learn more at Raise a Lifelong Reader.