Leaving the Classroom for Good: The Conundrum in Action

I have never met Sarah Fine who, after four years of teaching English, left Washington, D.C.’s Cesar Chavez Public Charter School in August 2009. I had read her occasional pieces about teaching in the Washington Post and admired her honesty and smarts about D.C. students, parents, and administrators.

Sarah Fine is, of course, another statistic in the high attrition of young, talented teachers who “burn out” after a few years from tough working conditions (long days and evenings, antagonistic principals, heavy teaching load of needy kids). She also gets tired of the persistent question from family and friends: you still teaching? The smell of disrespect for teaching as a second-hand profession rankled Fine no end. Yet she regretted leaving because she knew that her exit was another blow to her students. Her story is one that puts a face to the conundrum of blaming teachers for students’ low performance and then expecting them to turn around and remedy the ills.

In one article, she crisply framed the issue of young, idealistic, mission-driven teachers leaving after only four years of teaching:

“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.”

Sarah Fine is (rather was) an “Idealist,” one of three groups of U.S. teachers that researchers surveyed recently. The other groups of teachers were labeled “Contented” and “Disheartened.” More than half of the “Idealists” (23 percent of the teachers surveyed) are under 32 and they entered teaching to help poor and minority students. Over one-third of the “Idealists” say that they will leave teaching in a few years for other jobs in education. The “Contented” (37 percent) are veteran teachers of ten or more years experience who intend to remain in the classroom. Two out of three teach in middle to upper-middle class schools; they are satisfied with their administrators and have sufficient time to craft strong lesson plans. The “Disheartened” (40 percent) are older and more experienced than the “Idealists.” Most teach in low-income schools. They find administrators frustrating; disorder in the school scares them; and they get angry over too much testing.

What these surveys offer is an unsettling tripartite division of nearly four million teachers into those who exit too early to leave any footprints in classrooms, those who feel beleaguered and unappreciated, and a minority of teachers content to teach in affluent schools.

Over half of the teachers, according to this survey, either leave the job or are upset by what they experience daily. Moreover, beyond the survey, teaching, as Sarah Fine reminds us, garners little respect across the country from high-status educated classes—compared to the high regard teachers receive in Canada and western European nations. Whispers about teachers scoring low on the SAT, unambitious college graduates who couldn’t succeed in other jobs or those who look for security and long vacations fill the air that policy elites breathe.

I have no neat solutions to fix either high attrition among young teachers or the persistent disrespect for teaching that exists today. Generous awards established for teachers and special days set aside to honor them just won’t remove the stink of low regard.What drove Sarah Fine from the classroom and what the survey revealed cannot be resolved with teachers receiving medals and cash awards; the problems are rooted in the social and educational structures (e.g., residential segregation, single-salary schedule, weak evaluation procedures, inadequate professional development, large student load, and the age-graded school). The problems are anchored in the history of top-down, efficiency-driven policies (e.g., buying 1:1 laptops; testing students every year) that give teachers little say in the work they do and disrespects the expertise they have in teaching children and youth. For well over a century, reform-driven policymakers have decided what teachers should teach, how they should teach, with what tools and for how long without any serious efforts to tap their experience and wisdom gained in classrooms. These policymakers, of course, mirror the low regard with which teachers are held in this society. Placing token teachers on blue-ribbon committees or policymakers’ hopeful rhetoric about teachers “buying in” to the school reform to insure full implementation or lowering anti-union hostility will hardly dent that deep reservoir of disrespect. Nor will such empty measures keep more Sarah Fines from leaving the classroom.

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