*I wrote this today in response to an email from Dr. Jim Davis about Richard Ingersoll's research on retention data for teachers, and how it relates to his teacher-ed prep students who are on the verge of entering the profession. I'm still not really sure how to get more teachers to stay, unless we keep making it so hard that only those of us who are rabidly obsessed (and somewhat masochistic) are left.
You would be crazy not to question entering the teaching profession, based on all you hear about it in the news, classrooms, and coffee shops. I don’t think a day goes by where I don’t hear something disparaging about teachers or the public education system in general. Just this morning it was news of Time Magazine’s “bad teachers” cover story. I haven’t read it yet, but I know it will create another news cycle of voices crying out about the terrible teachers we have and listing their own experiences with ghosts of teachers past. The negative rhetoric surrounding education is enough to make anyone want to quit.
I’m not here to say those things don’t hurt. I know how much I care about teaching. I love my content and I love my students. Every year I think I can’t love them more than I loved the last group, and then it starts all over again. The amount of love I have is what makes those comments hurt so much. If I was working a desk job, would I be as offended when some outsider criticized my work? I don’t know. Maybe I’m just a sensitive person. But with teaching you put everything on the line. Your heart, your intelligence, your very personality are out there for others to judge freely, and most of them judge without ever seeing you actually teach.
Conditions in schools are far from perfect. I look at Richard Ingersoll’s list of “Sources of Dissatisfaction for Outgoing Teachers” and there are parts of it that could read as a checklist of my daily life. I would be lying to say I’ve never considered leaving. “Companies who hire teachers” has showed up in my Google search history more than once, many times because of the factors on this list.
1.Too little prep time. I have one 45-minute prep period at the beginning of the day. However, that prep period is scheduled at the same time when most of my students have study hall, so they often come to me for help. Three girls sought refuge just this morning from a tyrannical study hall monitor. If I am leaving actual prep work to complete during this time, it is a mad dash that I will not necessarily accomplish.
2.Teaching load too heavy. I have 137 students this year. I teach writing, and they write every day, sharing a piece every week. That means I respond to at least 137 pieces of writing every week, outside of class time. Do other jobs require employees to meet with 137 clients every day? Does that sound overwhelming? It is.
3. Poor salary/benefits. This is an area I do not complain about. I have summers off; my pay is adequate. Do other professionals with a master’s degree make more money in their fields? Maybe. But I make enough money for the life I lead.
4. Class sizes too large. I am the only language arts teacher for 7th and 8th grade in my district. Yes, you read that right. So yes, my class sizes are too large because rural schools have had to cut positions to bare bones in order to survive.
5. Student behavioral problems. I’m in my ninth year of teaching, and this is not as big of a concern as it was in my early years, but that is not to say it ever goes away. My mantra for management since that first horrendous year has been “what you allow is what will continue” and that guides how I treat behavior in my room. I started the year with a boy who spouted abuse at me every day because he hates women. It’s the end of October, and I seem to have won him over. For now. Classroom teaching is not a job for those who cannot set boundaries and enforce them with love and consistency.
6. Lack of faculty influence. It is infuriating to be in charge of your classroom while also being completely powerless over everything else surrounding education and where it could be headed. I don’t know how to explain this to someone who isn’t already a teacher and who hasn’t felt that powerlessness.
7. Too little parent support. The main thing I wish I could express to parents in this situation is to proceed calmly before confronting a teacher. You are working together, with the same goals. You are not enemies. I know you love your child, but please think back to what you were like at that specific age. I teach middle school, and I am amazed that some parents still think their children are 100% perfect, honest angels at this age. Puberty messes with your head. Your children are so emotional and sensitive right now, that their perspective on a situation could be pretty far from reality. I know you want to defend them (and should), but please also allow them to grow as human beings and realize that part of growing means testing boundaries, getting in trouble, and facing consequences.
8. No opportunities for professional advancement. You could take the administration path. Some people are made for this. You could also leave to work for an AEA or other education-related group. Most of these options mean that you leave the classroom, at least part-time. But when I think about what I love about teaching, it always comes down to how much I cherish talking with kids. The daily conversations I have with 13-14-year-olds are more interesting than half of the adult social situations I find myself in.
9. Too little collaboration time. We don’t have time to prep for our own classes, how could we possibly have time to collaborate meaningfully with others. Granted, a certain amount of time when we are given it always leads back to complaining about how little time we’re given. Time, in any context, is always an issue for teachers.
There are other things I could add to this list to scare you away from teaching. Do you like being able to choose when you go to the bathroom based on when you actually have to use the facilities? Not in my world. I know exactly what time windows I have, and if I miss them, then it’s another two-hour wait. But I don’t want to scare you anymore. Teaching is amazing, and it’s worth it.
I stand in front of the future every day and get to know them. I see moments of brilliance and humor, I see kids struggling to get by, and I see them full of opportunity before life has had the chance to defeat them. I have the attention of an audience, and while I can be uncomfortable in social situations, I know how to turn on the energy and command a room with charm and humor. I do not know what will happen each day when I go to work: it is always different, and it is never boring. I do a job that requires me to be fully present in body, mind, and spirit, and when I do it well, I know I am making a difference. There is no other job in the world that provides for you what teaching can, but it will never be perfect, and it will never be easy.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.