Teachers Quitting in Record Numbers – Reflections on Education

Today, I resume my teaching duties for the remainder of the 2018-2019 academic year.  In the spirit of that return from two weeks of glorious holiday loafing (and the prolific blogging it enabled, however briefly), the Wall Street Journal ran a piece over break about teachers quitting their jobs in record numbers.

I don’t plan on quitting education anytime soon—I rather enjoy teaching kids useful trivia and getting paid for it—but I would like to offer an “insider’s perspective” on the education field.  Granted, I teach in private school, but many of the issues teachers face are similar (albeit thankfully muted in a private school setting).

Generally, there seem to be two approaches to looking at the massive problems of education:  one is that we should spend more on education; the other is to pile more responsibilities onto teachers, and even to blame them for children’s lackluster performance.  Both of these approaches are, to different extents, flawed.

I’ll consider the second perspective first.  Conservative politicians will occasionally scapegoat teachers, sometimes fairly (as in the egregious examples from New York public schools with pedophiles on permanent, paid leave and the like), but usually without a solid understanding of what teaching entails.

I commonly see teachers—who get very prickly when people start noting the profession’s many perks—post online about how we don’t just get out at 3 everyday, etc.  There’s some truth to that; if you really do your job right, you’re spending a good bit of your time either before or after school, not to mention the weekends, grading or planning.  That’s especially true for first- and second-year teachers, who really have to do everything from scratch.

That said, if you stick with it—and if you don’t fall for the perennial educational fads that circulate every five years or so, all of which claim the previous fad was fatally incorrect, but that this one is the Brave New World of Education and is inerrant—you can pretty much tweak your lesson plans and approaches at the margins, rather than reinvent the wheel, from year to year.  I’ve known (and been taught by) many teachers that are overzealous about totally rebuilding their courses on a regular basis, but the perceived gains they see in the classroom are probably due more to their own passion than to whatever bold new system they’ve conjured up.

Which brings me to the other perspective mentioned above.  Progressives, who have an overly romantic view of education—and who see it as a means to indoctrinate generations to spew Leftist pabulum uncritically—think the education system can solve all of society’s ills if we just invest in it more.  Part of it comes from a desire to create more government jobs (and loyal Democratic voters) for people dubiously qualified to do anything productive.  Part of it comes from a sincere belief that they can save underprivileged kids.

That clearly doesn’t work.  So what is the truth when it comes to education, and how can we begin solving some of its problems?

For one, the complaints from those outside of the profession about our hours and summer vacation are not without merit, but they miss the point, too.  As noted above, good teachers—by which I mean teachers who will do their jobs as they should—will put in time over and beyond the classroom time.  You have to if you’re actually going to be prepared for class.

Summer vacation is a perk—we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.  Many teachers use it as an opportunity for professional development, but, c’mon, it’s also a time to hit the beach (I might be an exception to both—I do maintenance and grounds work at my school to make extra money, because I want to retire someday).  But it’s a big draw for many to the profession, especially women (and particularly mothers), who make up a huge portion of the teaching population.  As with the perennial debates about the mythical wage gap, teachers should acknowledge that less months worked = less pay.  The counterargument, one that I’ve made frequently, is that many of us put in twelve months’ worth of work in nine or ten.

As far as putting more money into schools, that’s all well and good—but where does the money go?  If it’s going to build some needless Mall of America school complex, or to hire another Assistant Vice-Principal of Islamic Outreach, it’s not doing much beyond feathering the nests of over-credentialed M.Ed. holders who took a couple of online classes in between naps and diversity seminars.

New technology and facilities are great, but they don’t teach kids.  All I need to teach history or music is some kind of board, something to write on, and some dog-eared notes.  I could probably get by without the board.  Jesus taught multitudes without a SmartBoard.  Aristotle taught Alexander the Great, probably with nothing more than some tablets and scrolls, and that guy conquered the known world.

More importantly, teachers need administrators to give us the space to do our jobs.  We all have little duties that cut into prep time, and that’s the nature of the beast.  But when politicians start decreeing ever-more tasks for schools to take on, they inevitably fall to the teachers.  The aforementioned AVP of Islamic Outreach isn’t the one writing the lesson plans about Muhammad’s views on marrying nine-year olds, even if xyr is forcing the Social Studies Department to add it; the Social Studies teachers are the ones figuring out how to make it happen, all the way complying with a thicket of misguided federal and State “guidelines.”

Ultimately, there are some behavioral issues that drive teachers from the biz, too; these are problems that, in part, begin at home (or, sadly, the lack thereof).  Those are social and cultural problems that are, frankly, beyond the power of educators and administrators to solve on the macro level.  We all do our part, to the extent we can, at the micro level.  I fear that some teachers overdo it, but that’s a topic I’d have to cover separately.

To summarize these stream-of-consciousness reflections, here are some things that would help aid retention in the field—and align educational goals more with reality:

  • Offer better pay if people are leaving; have flexible pay-scales that allow teachers with good track records (measurable in a variety of ways) better pay or bonuses (to be clear:  I don’t advocate blanket pay raises for all teachers in all districts—I’m sure some are well-compensated, and some not).  This doesn’t have to be pegged to test scores, but to a “holistic” assessment of a teacher.  If you’re teaching in Allendale County, South Carolina, you’re not going to have stellar test scores, so you can’t rely solely on those to assess the efficacy of a teacher.
  • Offer more flexible forms of alternative certification.  South Carolina currently has a severe shortage of teachers, but still insists that those without a teaching certificate endure a long, expensive, three-year process of alternative certification.  My proposal—which I pitched briefly to my former SC State Representative Jay Jordan—is to make it possible for private school teachers with, say, five years of classroom teaching to gain their certification automatically, or after taking the Praxis exam in their field or fields.  If the teacher holds a Master’s degree or Ph.D., knock two or three years off of that requirement.  You’d instantly have access to a huge pool of teachers, many of whom would be qualified from years of experience.  Also, there are a lot teachers that have their certification that are, quite frankly, crummy, so that magic piece of paper does not automatically a good teacher make.
  • Reduce administrative bullcrap.  Teachers quite principals, not schools—that’s a common maxim in education circles, and it’s true.  Administrators should realistically be support for teachers, and should avoid overloading their teachers with a bunch of paperwork (except where necessary).  Teachers can be whiny and catty—they tend to think they need more stuff to do their jobs than they actually do—but that just means you’ve got to have a firm but flexible hand steering the ship.
  • Allow teachers flexibility in lesson planning and sequencing.  A big complaint I hear from my public school teacher friends is that they can barely take time to answer an intriguing student question if the lesson plan doesn’t allow it.  As a private school teacher with a penchant for discursive asides, this blows my mind.  Nothing will kill a child’s interest in a subject (especially history) faster if he can’t ask some off-the-wall question and at least hope to get some interesting explanation or discussion.  Obviously, you can’t do this every class, but teachers shouldn’t live in fear of going “off script.”  Indeed, I don’t think there should be a script—just a broad, skeletal outline (of course, I recognize that this assumes the teacher is independently motivated and reasonably good at his or her job; sadly, I don’t think that’s the case with a substantial minority of public school teachers, per my comments above).

That’s a short, incomplete list of some possible proposals.  It’s not exhaustive, and as every teacher and wag will point out, there’s always an exception (I can’t tell you how many faculty meetings I’ve endured where some new policy has been discussed, and immediately dozens of exceptions or unique scenarios arise, to which I would say either a.) figure it out yourself or b.) just follow the policy as best you can, knowing weird exceptions will crop up—ask forgiveness, not permission).

If nothing else, I hope these reflections are useful (and, for any of my parents, colleagues, or school administrators who might be reading, know that I love my job and all of you, and that our little school is the best in South Carolina) and can spark some discussion.  Education is hugely important to the future of South Caroline and our nation; it deserves to be discussed frankly and dispassionately.

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