What is happening?
To put it simply, teaching is quickly becoming an unsustainable profession in a volatile environment. Too many teachers have found themselves feeling like they are treading water, and people keep throwing them more bricks to hold. They are struggling to keep their heads above water, trying to do all the things they know are best practice and right for students, in addition to more clerical duties, more pressure from the district, more budget cuts, and less support.
I know this because I watched it happen, up close and personal, to my mentee. She was new to teaching, and she coordinated schedules, communicated with parents, and taught children with boundless enthusiasm and positivity. I met with her monthly, helped with lesson plans, behavior, and parent communication. But it wasn’t enough. I couldn’t help her with the fact that she always left the job feeling like she wasn’t doing enough. I couldn’t help her with the emails and scheduling she did late into the night. I couldn’t help her with the parents she would never please, no matter what she did. So she quit, and I felt as her mentor, I had somehow failed her.
I set about researching teacher attrition and quickly learned one in three teachers quit in the first three years and fifty percent quit in the first five. I started talking to other colleagues I knew had quit, and found their stories raw, emotional and telling. I realized their voices needed to be heard, so people could know what teaching is really like, from the inside.
Through blogs, e-mails, phone calls, and face-to-face interviews, I spoke with (mostly listened to) over 70 teachers from across the country in various school settings. I found common themes in their very personal words and started writing the book “Why Great Teachers Quit and How We Might Stop the Exodus”, released by Corwin Press in 2010. In addition to an exploration of the problems, the book focuses on school, district, state, and national solutions in each problem area, with success stories and words of inspiration as well. My goal was to give a voice to the countless educators across the country who have quit, but also those who have stayed and the wisdom they can share with us.
So what can we do? Plenty. Here are some ways to make teaching more sustainable, more empowering and positive, based on my research and writing of “Why Great Teachers Quit and How We Might Stop the Exodus”.
More influence. More engagement. More motivation.
One of the themes that presented itself in my interviews and experience is the lack of influence teachers have on their daily lives working with students. It is remarkable to think that the people with the most direct contact with children, the people in charge of the minute-to-minute educational decisions, have the least impact on curricular decisions, scheduling, professional development, behavior management, and school policy. To engage, motivate, empower, and better utilize teacher wisdom and experience, this must change.
How can a school begin to do this?
- Connect teachers with the school leaders. Send teams of teachers to every school board meeting to stay updated with policy discussions and decisions. Encourage teacher feedback to all proposals, changes, and major decisions. Teachers can then report back to the staff about issues related to their particular area, and this can motivate teachers to communicate regularly with the school boards to better govern the school.
- Teachers need feedback opportunities that are professionally paid or have a scheduled release time. This should occur in all areas, such as scheduling, program selection, discipline, and school wide policies. Using in-service days for this kind of work empowers teachers to feel valued, instead of using an expensive outside consultant that might not have an immediate impact on teaching or the school.
- Provide leadership opportunities for teachers. Teaching lacks a strong career ladder. Many teachers don’t want to become principals, but want to expand and try new opportunities and responsibilities to learn and grow. Schools and districts should provide teacher leadership opportunities such as mentoring, curricular coaching, assessment, and consulting roles so teachers see themselves as continually growing, changing, and challenging themselves.
- State and national politicians should seek teacher feedback on all new educational policies affecting teaching. It is demoralizing to teachers when someone outside of education makes decisions about teaching with no real idea of the ramifications for teachers and students. Teachers, if given in the opportunity, want to shape state and national policy with their experience and professional knowledge. They need the time, the opportunity, and the support to do so.
One thing you will hear teachers say again and again is “don’t add anything else to my plate! It’s already full!” and at this time in our nation’s history, this couldn’t be more true.
Teachers are asked to do more than ever with less than ever. We are custodians, administrative assistants, fundraisers, child protectors, hunger fighters, police officers, mediators, nurses, fundraisers, and more. Roland Barth notices this phenomena in his book, “Learning by Heart”. He says, “Endless uncompensated add-ons eventually lead to the school equivalent of a sweat shop.”
Teachers pay the price for this kind of environment — and so do the students, one could argue. Many of the people I interviewed shared the tolls on their personal lives: sickness, trouble with relationships, weight gain or loss, trouble managing work/life balance, and anxiety.
How can schools reduce the rush-rush, endless barrage of expectations and obligations on teachers and make schools more joyful?
- Focus on teacher wellness. I don’t mean another canvas bag or mug. I’m talking about meaningful wellness plans, such as weekly yoga classes, support groups, exercise groups, and care for teachers who need extra support in challenging times or during major life changes. A small team of administrators, teachers, the school nurse, and counselor can use wellness funds from insurance or grants to fund and plan the year with an eye on making teaching more full of joy, support, health, and humanity.
- Give teachers time to plan, grade and collaborate. That is what they need more than anything. Administrators, plan staff meetings, in-service days, and other obligations with an understanding of the incredible pressures teachers face. Be efficient, concise, and give teachers as much time as possible to do the important work they need to do regularly: communicating with parents, assessing, planning, and collaborating to improve instruction.
- Plan time for celebrations. Build a strong community among the school staff. This can be done by connecting regularly through short celebration announcements at the beginning of staff meetings, regular get togethers, and parties to celebrate life milestones.
- Streamline clerical duties for teachers. Their days are filled with endless duties unrelated to teaching. Support with ordering, budgeting, copying, planning and coordinating field trips, and other office-related tasks would help teachers be better able manage their teaching responsibilities. Administrative assistants can be crucial in assisting teachers in this way. In some schools, administrative assistants plan field trips, copy materials, and enter data for teachers. This would allow teachers to spend more time doing the work that improves student achievement.
- Think creatively of ways to support educators. This may mean a monthly early release day for students, full of parent-led physical fitness activities. During this time, teachers can collaborate with each other to share ideas, improve instruction, problem solve, and improve school climate — among many other topics.
These are only a few ideas to help make teaching more sustainable, so our most talented teachers stay in the classroom for their whole careers. In “Why Great Teachers Quit and How We Might Stop the Exodus” I explore other topics in depth such as parents, administrators, standardized testing, working conditions, respect and compensation, and school boards. Too many talented teachers leave schools forever each year. This is a solvable problem. By listening to each other and working together, with careful planning and attention, we can lessen the tide of teacher attrition, ultimately improving the learning and working environment in schools for everyone.