There are three ways to reduce the kind of burnout that so many K-12 teachers, particularly in low-income minority schools such as Spanish teacher Alli Baugher at Ballou High School in Washington, D.C. experienced. Change the work conditions or change yourself (or both).
Change working conditions. The age-graded school was a mid-19th century innovation imported from Prussia and planted in the U.S. Within a half-century, the innovation slowly and irrevocably replaced the one-room schoolhouse throughout the nation. Erecting a “grammar school” housing eight grades with separate classrooms where teachers teach six year-olds in one room and ten year-olds in another reorganized the very nature of schooling in the U.S. The principal and teacher would determine whether each student had learned that portion of the curriculum allotted to that grade in one year’s time most often through tests. If the student passed the various tests he or she advanced to the next grade; if not, the student was held back for another year or assigned to a different room.
The age-graded school has defined “normal” academic progress within elementary school, junior high school (now middle school) and high school ever since. The age-graded school also has shaped how teachers taught. By the 1930s, for example, in the high school the daily workload of teachers was to teach five or six 45-60 minute classes of 25-30 students. Thus, this organizational innovation embedded within ever larger brick-and-mortar buildings has had enormous influence on how students learn and how teachers teach.
Since the 1980s, school reform has focused on raising curriculum standards and graduation requirements, increasing standardized testing, and imposing accountability rules that contain both rewards and penalties. All of these reforms have intensified teachers’ intellectual, emotional and physical workload leading to high attrition rates among teachers, especially in urban districts threatened with school closure or state takeover.
Altering the age-graded organization and teachers’ working conditions conditions is one way of reducing large numbers of teachers exiting schools, especially in low-income, largely minority schools. Abolishing age-gradedness—having K-3 units for children ages 5-9—grouping and re-grouping children by performance in math, reading, and academic subjects rather than age–means that students’ mastery of knowledge and skills determines progress in school, not sitting at a desk for 36 weeks. While it may appear obvious, few efforts, if any, have occurred over the past century to alter the age-graded school. In the 1960s, non-graded elementary schools sprouted across the country with “open” classrooms and “open-space” schools. The sprouts shriveled, however, within a few years and migration back to the traditional organization occurred. Today, enthusiasts for online courses tout the benefits of students learning at their individual speed and not bend to the demands of a “normal” school year. Yet even these cheerleaders for online instruction accept the age-graded structure.
The fact is that moving away from the age-graded school would have an enormous influence on teacher working conditions and how students learn. Few such efforts, however, are on reformers’ agendas. Which means that avoiding burnout and exiting the profession is up to the individual teacher.
Individual teacher renewal. Effectiveness in every people-serving occupation (e.g., teaching, therapy, nursing, clinical medicine) requires developing relationships with those served be they clients, patients, or students. In teaching, the building and sustaining of relationships with children and youth are essential for student learning. Such work, over time, while satisfying and rewarding drains one’s energies and commitment. Renewal—repotting—is essential.
Teaching is energizing but also exhausting work. Each day teachers spend the rich intellectual, physical, and emotional capital that they have accumulated over the years on their students. Because of that loss in capital, teachers need to re-invest in themselves by doing what expert gardeners do with favorite potted plants.
Because plants can become pot bound, that is, the roots of the plant become cramped and form a tightly packed mass that inhibits growth they need to be re-potted in different soil and larger pots so they can flourish. Yes, re-potting entails risks and often causes stress but staying potted in the same place means little intellectual growth, diminished enthusiasm for students, even a slow slide into habits that get teachers through the day.
For teachers, re-potting may mean shifting to another grade, tossing out old lessons, introducing new ones, taking a short or long break from the classroom and doing something else that engages one’s passions.
Changing the organization of the age-graded school is not on the agenda of the current generation of efficiency-driven school reformers. Current reforms from Common Core standards to charter schools to accountability, if anything, reinforce with steel rebar the age-graded school. Thus, sad to say, it is up to individual teachers to take charge of their personal renewal.