“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”
– Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, 1907
As told by the late historian Henry Adams, educators impact the lives of their pupils in a profound way. Many students go on to pursue careers relating to exciting course material brought to life by a gifted professor during their academic journeys. Others are so moved by their teachers’ demonstrations of knowledge, care, and ability to inspire young minds that they become educators themselves.
As the millennial generation enters the workforce, its members increasingly seek vocational paths like teaching that allow them to take an active role in the development of their communities. Many of these post-grads fresh to the profession are doubling-down on giving back. They are taking on some of the most challenging jobs available at charters, turnarounds and otherwise-struggling public institutions in underfunded districts.
Often, new teachers land these positions through programs like Teach For America (TFA), Teaching Fellows (TF), Americorps, and other education oriented non-profits. To reach this enthusiastic crowd, Teach For America has marketed its program to prospective members as an “illustrious two-year postgraduate service mission rather than a safe middle-class career choice.” Similarly, Teaching Fellows promotes the service aspect of their offerings, summarizing their practice as “training a generation of great teachers… for the students who need them most.”
Both have enjoyed success pitching this message: Teach For America and Teaching Fellows claim 37,000 and 33,000 alumni, respectively. Americorps has used similar themes to attract over 900,000 participants since 1994; however, Americorps’ service opportunities are broad in scope, and only an (undisclosed) portion of their members enter into education.
It is commendable that these groups match eager-to-help graduates with the schools and students who need the most aid. That said, matching is but the beginning, and the programs do possess flaws. All too often, conditions are so bad that teachers don’t last. Despite their passion for the practice and appreciation of the students, they quit. Some abandon their posts mid-semester, while others depart once their program commitments expire.
After four years at a charter school, Sarah Fine quit too. In her essay Schools Need Teachers Like Me, I Just Can’t Stay for The Washington Post, Fine notes, “Nationally, half of all new teachers leave the profession within five years, and in urban schools, especially the much-lauded ‘no-excuses’ charter schools, turnover is often much higher.”
That is not to say that Teach For America, Teaching Fellows and Americorps are wholly responsible for our lamentably high teacher-turnover rates. Undoubtedly, these programs wield significant power; they are responsible for the placement of tens of thousands of teachers in jobs. That granted, there are millions of teachers across the nation, and TFA, TF and Americorps staff only a small percentage of them. Moreover, structural problems concerning resource allocation in our education system gave rise to the problems these not-for-profits seek to mitigate. Regardless, TFA and TF are useful to us in that they have clearly stated agendas, defined training protocol, and vocal alumni; the wealth of information provided by these sources lends well to discourse.
Thanks to the proliferation of blogging platforms, we need not imagine the day-to-day realities of a teacher at one of these high-turnover schools. A quick search-engine query for “why I quit teaching at a charter school” yields hundreds of anecdotes, op-eds, and testimonials. Many former educators describe exactly what circumstances led them to walk away from a profession they loved. We took the time to read these teachers’ thoughts, and identified some recurring themes.
The most common problems cited by departed teachers were insufficient training, micromanagement in the classroom, burdensome workloads, inadequate compensation, a lack of recognition for their efforts, and the promotion of a “hero culture” by principals and training programs that says more, harder work can overcome structural incongruencies.
Regarding the former-most complaint — insufficient training for new teachers — consider that Teach For America participants engage in training that goes on no longer than five weeks. Further, NPR writes that TFA has “helped open the doors to alternative-certification programs for teachers…[so that] today 1 in 5 new teachers is certified by a path other than a bachelor’s degree or master’s in education.” After their abbreviated training sessions, new hires are barraged with evaluation methodologies they must integrate into curriculum while actually teaching students and developing lesson plans.
One former teacher offers that there seemed no end to the influx, stating, “I had to read a book on how to properly teach. I had to collaborate with coworkers on how to properly implement one educational theory after another. I watched videos and read articles about effective teachers… I was told to give more exams, score more exit tickets, give more assessments… They encouraged me a lot, saying… that I would be much better next year… but I felt like I wasn’t a teacher anymore.”
Sarah Fine further details what micromanagement in charter schools looks like, writing, “One afternoon [in the Spring of 2010], when my often-apathetic 10th graders were walking eagerly around the room as part of a writing assignment, an administrator came in and ordered me to get the class ‘seated and silent.’” She continues, decrying that she and her colleagues would spend “weeks revising a curriculum proposal… only to find out that the administration had made a unilateral decision without looking at it.”
Abbas Manjee, former high school teacher and current Kiddom employee, illustrates the disconnect between teachers and administration, writing, “Often, district and school-wide administrators sign us up for software, technology, and classroom management systems that we never asked for or needed.” Yet another anonymous teacher shares in the Citizens Times that they quit because “professional judgment was essentially a thing of the past.”
The same out-of-practice professor also complains of “the ever increasing role of bureaucracy… in our system of education” and “the overuse of assessments” to the point that “we have created students who see reading as a test and not a pathway to learning.” Many other teachers speak against the overuse of testing, and the pressures on teachers in “no-excuses” schools to make their students perform. An anonymous educator writes in The Guardian that “the passing on of every ounce of exam burden my way took its toll,” and contributed to her departure from the classroom.
In telling teachers that greater effort is the path to improving student scores (i.e., promoting the “hero culture”), schools and training programs “[lean] heavily on the rhetoric of bootstrapping, [which makes] new teachers tend to feel individually culpable when things go wrong in the classroom,” says Lean Donnella of NPR.
Former charter teacher Sarah Matsui writes that her trainers at TFA tried to convince new teachers “that a ‘can-do attitude’ is all it takes to overcome systemic gaps in our schools.” However, she notes, “Scaling up even the best of intentions or holding the highest expectations for individual students will not change the differential funding of our separate school districts.”
Matsui provides an example of starkly different per-pupil expenditures for the city of Philadelphia’s (79% black and latino students, $9,299 per student annual spending), relative to neighboring Lower Merion, just outside the city limits (91% white students, $17,261 per student annual spending). Preaching that hard work is all that is needed to overcome this massive disparity in resource “reinforces the myth of meritocracy,” according to Matsui.
Irrespective of their beliefs on meritocracy, teachers are expected to work harder, stay later, and make excellent of what little they’re given. Abbas Manjee writes of his early experiences at a charter school that, “Like any first-year teacher, my life revolved around my profession: plan, create, assess, grade, adjust, repeat.” He shares that over time, expectations spiraled out of control and eventually, “it wasn’t enough to just teach well anymore.”
Manjee described teachers’ expanded roles, noting, “We make phone calls home. If someone doesn’t pick up, we call again. We connect with social workers during lunch to investigate student concerns,” and continues listing other behaviors not typically associated with teaching. Unfortunately, the added time and stress inherent to educators’ expanded responsibilities does not come with a comparable rise in wages. Sarah Fine says of her pay that, “over the course of four years, my school’s administration steadily expanded the workload and workday while barely adjusting salaries.”
Regardless of their successes, efforts, or acumen, many teachers find themselves unsung in avenues aside from income. To this point, Deanna Lyles shares, “I quit because I wanted to be treated as a professional.” Another comments that, “I just got sick of being in a profession that I felt held no real status in this country.” Sarah Fine observes that, “When people ask me about teaching… what they really seem to mean is that it’s unfathomable that anyone with real talent would want to stay in the classroom for long.” In his essay Why I Quit Teaching, Abbas Manjee says plainly that the “complete and utter disrespect for my profession has finally gotten to me.”
Clearly, a multitude of factors contribute to the early departure of new teachers from the profession. Some problems — like inadequate training and teacher departure immediately upon completion of program terms — can be remedied by the not-for-profits specializing in training in placement. Other issues, like teachers under-compensation and heavy work loads, require broader, structural solutions that necessitate significant power to implement. To that end, no single tech firm or teacher placement program can fix them, no matter how noble their goals or innovative their methods.
Clearly, teacher turnover is a dynamic issue that deserves our attention. Catherine Ionata notes in the NY Times that “Research has shown that teacher-student relationships are absolutely crucial to student success,” and that “These relationships cannot be built in a year or two.” At the risk of childrens’ educational outcomes present and future, we must work harder and engage more fully in our efforts to lower the teacher turnover rate across our nation.
By: T. Madison Glimp
Content Contributor @ Kiddom