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Why so many teachers leave — and how to get them to stay

Chicago teachers on strike in 2012 (Sitthixay Ditthavong / AP)

It’s a well-known phenomenon that many teachers leave the profession not very long after entering it.

For many years, it was taken as a given that between 40 and 50 percent of public and private school teachers leave by the end of the fifth year of starting their career. This came from an estimate by Richard Ingersoll, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a leading scholar on the nation’s teacher workforce.from work this, according to a story by my colleague Emma Brown. In April, new federal data said that 17 percent of new public school teachers leave their jobs after four years. The different results can’t rightly be compared because they are looking at different things and over a different time period (but expect people to do it anyway). Ingersoll, a member of the advisory panel for the database used in the new federal study, now says he suspects 17 percent is too low, based on calcualations he has made using the data.

Whatever the actual percentage is, it is a reality that a lot of teachers leave. The question is why, and the answers are many. This post, by Louisiana teacher Alice Trosclair, looks at some of those reasons and offers solutions. Trosclair has been teaching for eight years in south Louisiana. She currently teachers American literature and AP English literature and Composition. A version of this post appeared on The Education’s Room website, and I am republishing it with permission.

[Why teachers can’t have normal lives]

By Alice Trosclair

On paper, teaching seems like the perfect job. Summers off, a workday that ends at 3 p.m., time off when the students are off — and the daily opportunity to work with children all day long. What more could one possibly want? As with life, things are not always what they seem. Teaching is hard. Parenting is generally deemed the hardest job in the world — but teaching runs a close second. Teachers continue to leave the profession in droves because all of those “on paper” benefits aren’t the reality. Many teachers must work over the summer to supplement their low salaries. Teachers work many hours after the last bell rings — and often keep working when kids have the day off. It’s no wonder that those educators dropping out include experienced teachers as well as new ones who discover that career is not sustainable for their lives. But there are other problems for teachers too, causing so many to leave what the public often assumes to be a dream job. Here are five of them — with suggested solutions.

Problem 1: Reality
This often happens to fresh-out-of-college teachers who have a mistaken sense of what is waiting for them in the classroom. With idealistic professors and inspiring true stories motivating them, they set out to save every student and change the world. We all want to do that. Then we enter the classroom and discover that not all students want to be saved and teaching is no longer standing on desk top and yelling out “Oh captain, my captain!” Standards must be met and understood. Formal assessments and benchmark tests abound.  Data must be collected and analyzed. Parental phone calls must be made and not all of them are pleasant. Student abilities range from high to low to in-between, and they all need individual attention, special plans, and guidance along the way. With changes in curriculum, many teachers are studying material days ahead of their students and trying to figure out how to teach it the night before. It can be overwhelming to balance teaching, paperwork, and a personal life.

Solution: Teachers in training need more time in real classrooms. They need less theory and more “hands on” experience and not just in honors and AP classrooms. Let them plan lessons and deliver them. Give new teachers seasoned mentors. Let an experienced teacher help them their first three years. For most new teachers, content knowledge is not the problem; it is classroom management and balancing the reality with the fantasy of teaching that is the rub. An experienced teacher is priceless and their involvement will save the new teachers coming into the classroom. Develop a support system on campus and check on your experienced teachers. Discuss the challenges, offer solutions, just listen to them. Teaching is a lonely job and no one knows what we go through more than other teachers who have been there. A team of teachers who help other teachers is priceless.

Problem 2: Lack of Respect
In no other profession is a college-educated individual questioned, second-guessed, and blamed as much as teachers. The media slams teachers while and parents, principals, and central office workers  question their abilities. There are surprise classroom visits which prove stressful even if you are doing what you are supposed to do. We work hard for little, and it never seems to be enough. There are more expectations layered on every year and frankly, not enough time provided to do it all. There are no pay raises, but we are asked to stay for this or that or are asked to take on more responsibilities. Saying “no” is not in our nature because most of us would do anything for our students, including pushing ourselves to the breaking point. We continue to be left out of the loop when it comes to implementing new curriculum or in making laws that affect us directly.  Why aren’t teachers allowed to have serious input into creation of  laws affecting us? Why don’t policymakers listen to us about a curriculum’s impact on our students?

[‘You have made us the enemy. This is personal.’]

Solution: Trust, pure and simple.  Trust that we want the best for our students and society. Trust that 95 percent of us are here for our students and want the best for them, so in turn we give them our best every day. Trust that we study pedagogy and spend our “off hours” searching for fresh perspective or a new way of doing something. Only teachers would spend their meager paycheck on classroom supplies to make a lesson more exciting. Only a teacher would go back for a masters degree (which only increases our pay check by a few hundred dollars a month if we stay in the classroom) to improve our teaching and understanding of content. Most of us will always keep learning because we want the best for our students. We are asked to take on more and more, but are put down when we ask for a raise or when giving our input for a new law. Stop excluding us and stop attacking us when we are the ones who want more for our students and society.

Problem 3: Paperwork
Overwhelming paperwork is another reason teachers are leaving the profession. Grading is expected and if you are a high school English teacher, your days are filled with assessing stacks of essays that never seem to shrink — but the problem is not just the grading. It is the detailed documentation of how the student was accommodated. It is the documentation of parent phone calls, behavior reports, and student teacher conferences. It is the department meetings and analysis of data and the teacher evaluations and professional growth plans. Our time during school hours is spent filling out paperwork and documenting our attempts to make us better teachers and to help our students.As a result, all of those essays and tests come home with us for grading.

Solution: The reality is that paperwork will never go away. Sharing ideas on how to organize this paper work and how to become more efficient is always welcomed. The most valuable resource the system could give us is more time in our day to get the work done. Giving teachers more planning time instead of having meetings during that time would be a huge help.

Problem 4: Environment
Teachers need supportive school environments and help with students who are not in class to learn. As technology grows, our students’ attention span shrinks. We plan for an exciting lesson, and some students say it is “stupid” and refuse to  participate. Working with a person that refuses to pull their share in the process is frustrating. Imagine having a group of students in every classroom who blatantly refuse to do anything. And yet, their standardized test scores can often comprise up to half of a teacher’s evaluation — and their response to our lessons during observations make up the other half.

Solution: Including all stakeholders in finding new ways to engage students in their education. Teachers, parents and administrators must work together to make the school experience one where students not only respect their teachers but have relevant reasons to engage. Many schools have lost or never had electives that children love — such as music, industrial arts, theater, etc., — and this is one reason that school has become such a heavy weight for students and teachers. Creating schools that care for the whole student, rather than just test scores, can create an environment where once again students AND teachers are more engaged.

Problem 5: Will I have a job?
Maybe. As school funding is cut, so are jobs. The first to go are teachers. The logic goes that “we can always add more students to a classroom,” or “a good teacher can take on a few more!” More and more positions are cut every year and not knowing if one will have a job as each spring approaches is very distressing for professional educators. As teachers, we are not in a financial position to “hang out” until August and see if something comes up. We are trying to survive like everyone is in this economy.

Solution: It does cost a fortune to run a school system, but it cannot be run like a business. Education is not a business. Packing the classrooms like packing the registers at Wal-Mart can only lead to disaster. School districts need to seriously look at budgets and cut the fluff – often the administrative fluff. Our students should not suffer in the classroom because of new football fields, inflated salaries of administrators or district employees, and private contracts with corporations that are out for profit only.

Teachers are leaving, and it is a harsh reality. It is a difficult job and not everyone can do it, but what would happen if no one wanted to do it? We have to help the teachers we have, and find a way to encourage more to enter the profession. A world without teachers is one without a future.

(Correction: Yes, the first version of this used the word “leaving” instead of “entering” in the first sentence. Now fixed.)