In 2005, the year I started teaching, nearly a third of new teachers in the District of Columbia were recent college graduates who had enrolled in Teach for America or the D.C. Teaching Fellows program. Statistics suggest that many of these recruits have already moved on. Nationally, half of all new teachers leave the profession within five years, and in urban schools, especially the much-lauded "no excuses" charter schools, turnover is often much higher.
But there is more to those numbers than "burnout." That term is shorthand for a suite of factors that contributed to my choice to leave the classroom. When I talk about the long hours, for example, what I mean is that, over the course of four years, my school's administration steadily expanded the workload and workday while barely adjusting salaries. More and more major decisions were made behind closed doors, and more and more teachers felt micromanaged rather than supported. One afternoon this spring, when my often apathetic 10th-graders were walking eagerly around the room as part of a writing assignment, an administrator came in and ordered me to get the class "seated and silent." It took everything I had to hold back my tears of frustration.
The teaching itself was exhilarating but disheartening. There were triumphs: energetic seminar discussions, cross-class projects, a student-led poetry slam. This past year, my 10th-graders even knocked the DC-CAS reading test out of the water. Even so, I felt like a failure. Too many of my students showed only occasional signs of intellectual curiosity, despite my best efforts to engage them. Too many of them still would not or could not read. And far too many of them fell through the cracks. Of the 130 freshmen who entered the school in 2005, about 50 graduated this spring.
There is yet another factor that played a part in my choice, something that I rarely mention. It has to do with the way that some people, mostly nonteachers, talk about the profession.
"Why teach?" they ask.
Do my lawyer and consultant friends find themselves having to explain why they chose their professions? I doubt it. Everyone seems to know why they do what they do. When people ask me about teaching, however, what they really seem to mean is that it's unfathomable that anyone with real talent would want to stay in the classroom for long. Teaching is an admirable and, well, necessary profession, they say, but it's not for the ambitious. "It's just so nice," was the most recent version I heard, from a businesswoman sitting next to me on a plane.
I used to think I was being oversensitive. Not so. One of my former colleagues, now a program director for Teach for America, has to defend her goal of becoming a principal: "When I tell people I want to do it, they're like, 'Really? You really still want to do that?' " Another friend describes her struggle to make peace with the fact that a portion of the American public sees teaching as a second-rate profession. "I want to be able to do big things and be recognized for them," she says. "In the world we live in, teaching doesn't cut it."
As a software engineer who has watched this country denigrate the Information Technologies profession over the past decade, I have little sympathy for the self-pity. In almost all private employment, salaries have shrunk, benefits have disappeared, and retirement programs are non-existent.
Lots of people work hard and are unappreciated. Let's call it a tie.
But she is right in observing that schools are mismanaged. The Feds are largely to blame for this.
The remedy is not more pay or provincial recrimination but the elimination of NCLB and the Department of Education. They are THE most obvious problem.