Schools Need Teachers Like Me. I Just Can't Stay.

By Sarah Fine
Sunday, August 9, 2009

My National Book Festival posters are gone, leaving behind tack marks and shreds of tape on the yellowing walls of Room 108 of the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School on Capitol Hill, where I spent the past four years teaching. The bookshelf where I kept my collection of young-adult novels holds nothing but a few outdated textbooks. The poems that my students added to our 10th-grade "slam wall" fill the trash can in the corner.

This will be the first time since I trooped off to kindergarten two decades ago that I will not celebrate the new year in September, and I find that hard to imagine. Somebody else will cover the holes in the classroom's walls with posters. Somebody else will pore over class rosters on a Metro commute from Dupont to Southeast. Somebody else will stand at the door and greet the students -- my students -- on the first day.

As for me, I plan to travel, write and try not to think too much about what I have left behind.

When I was a first-year teacher fresh out of college, I got a lot of questions about my chosen profession. I usually said that I was inspired by my grandmother, who taught in the Boston public schools for 35 years. The real truth was that, like many of my peers, I had fallen in love with the idea of the job. Urban classrooms struck me as seductively gritty, and it only seemed right that I "give back" after spending 22 years in a suburban, Ivy League bubble. I rarely voiced this sentiment because I was afraid of sounding cavalier.

Four years later, the question I encounter is equally thorny: Why leave teaching? It's not just a question about how I'll pay my rent. Reformers have big plans to transform failing urban schools, and their work hinges on finding a way to keep strong teachers in the classroom. By throwing in the towel, I have become one more teacher abandoning her students.

So why am I leaving?

When people ask, I tend to cite the usual suspect -- burnout. I just couldn't take it anymore, I explain. I describe what it was like to teach students such as Shawna, a 10th-grader who could barely read and had resolved that the best way to deal with me was to curse me out under her breath. I describe spending weeks revising a curriculum proposal with my fellow teachers, only to find out that the administration had made a unilateral decision without looking at it. I describe how it became impossible to imagine keeping it up and still having energy for, say, a family.

My listeners nod sagely. They've heard my story before: An eager young instructor plunges into the fray only to emerge, disappointed and disillusioned, a few years later. In the era of Teach for America and urban teaching fellow programs, my journey is not particularly novel.

In 2005, the year I started teaching, nearly a third of new teachers in the District of Columbia were recent college graduates who had enrolled in Teach for America or the D.C. Teaching Fellows program. Statistics suggest that many of these recruits have already moved on. 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.

But there is more to those numbers than "burnout." That term is shorthand for a suite of factors that contributed to my choice to leave the classroom. When I talk about the long hours, for example, what I mean is that, over the course of four years, my school's administration steadily expanded the workload and workday while barely adjusting salaries. More and more major decisions were made behind closed doors, and more and more teachers felt micromanaged rather than supported. One afternoon this spring, 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." It took everything I had to hold back my tears of frustration.

The teaching itself was exhilarating but disheartening. There were triumphs: energetic seminar discussions, cross-class projects, a student-led poetry slam. This past year, my 10th-graders even knocked the DC-CAS reading test out of the water. Even so, I felt like a failure. Too many of my students showed only occasional signs of intellectual curiosity, despite my best efforts to engage them. Too many of them still would not or could not read. And far too many of them fell through the cracks. Of the 130 freshmen who entered the school in 2005, about 50 graduated this spring.

There is yet another factor that played a part in my choice, something that I rarely mention. It has to do with the way that some people, mostly nonteachers, talk about the profession.

"Why teach?" they ask.

Do my lawyer and consultant friends find themselves having to explain why they chose their professions? I doubt it. Everyone seems to know why they do what they do. When people ask me about teaching, however, 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. Teaching is an admirable and, well, necessary profession, they say, but it's not for the ambitious. "It's just so nice," was the most recent version I heard, from a businesswoman sitting next to me on a plane.

I used to think I was being oversensitive. Not so. One of my former colleagues, now a program director for Teach for America, has to defend her goal of becoming a principal: "When I tell people I want to do it, they're like, 'Really? You really still want to do that?' " Another friend describes her struggle to make peace with the fact that a portion of the American public sees teaching as a second-rate profession. "I want to be able to do big things and be recognized for them," she says. "In the world we live in, teaching doesn't cut it."

I often feel the same way. Teaching is a grueling job, and without the kind of social recognition that accompanies professions such as medicine and law, it is even harder for ambitious young people like me to stick with it.

In their book "Millennials Rising: the Next Great Generation," sociologists Neil Howe and William Strauss characterize the members of my generation as "engaged," "upbeat" and "achievement-oriented." This is why we become teachers. We seek to challenge ourselves, and we excel at pursuing our goals. Howe and Strauss go so far as to call us a "hero generation." Our engagement also explains why we are leaving the classroom. We are not used to feeling consistently defeated and systemically undervalued.

President Obama also casts himself as a believer in people my age. "They have become a generation of activists possessed with that most American of ideas -- that people who love their country can change it," he proclaimed in April.

The president is right: My generation does seem to care a lot about Important Stuff. We put our lives on hold to canvass for the causes we believe in. We volunteer like our hair is on fire. When it comes to teaching, however, this fire only burns for so long. We millennials are jostling each other for a place at the whiteboard, but few of us stay long enough to see our students make it through. True, many short-term teachers go on to work in education policy -- and they may well be the ones working on big-picture changes to ensure that more people are willing to stay in the classroom.

But high teacher turnover, in my millennial opinion, still matters, even with eager rookies waiting in the wings.

Having a base of teachers who teach for more than a token few years is critical to school reform. It helps principals and school leaders develop trusting relationships with teachers. It helps teachers collaborate with one another. Most of all, it helps students. A teacher with experience is not always a good teacher, but a good teacher is always better after a few years of experience. As my former principal not-so-subtly put it: "The kids don't need one-year wonders. There is no such thing as a one-year wonder."

Four-year wonders are better than nothing, but still not enough.

Sarah Fine was a teacher, department chair and instructional coach at a Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy in Washington from 2005 to 2009.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company