It is rarely one reason when a person who is dedicated to the ideal of teaching chooses to abandon the profession. Money is certainly part of it. The job can be hard, and the term "burnout" is often applicable, but not because of the difficulty of the job, at least, the part of the job that involved dealing with students, even the most difficult students.
Fine acknowledges that her own story is not unique, writing
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.
One reason not directly addressed in Fine's piece is that most urban charter schools are not unionized. For better or worse, that means that the teaching staff lacks the protections a union can give them, making them subject to abusive or unrealistic demands by administrations. We see this in the paragraph following what I have already quoted from Fine, who has already told us that she uses the term "burnout" as as a kind of shorthand:
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.
Here I would interject that some of what troubled her about her own situation is becoming increasingly the case in public schools that are unionized as well. The idea of micromanagement - especially in ways that interfere with the teachers' ability to really connect with the students, are among the most troubling problems teachers encounter. We see it in canned lessons, rigid pacing guides used to require everyone to be on the same page at the same time.
The idea that decisions are made behind closed doors is also something we all encounter. Or, if the doors are not closed, the voices of those of us in the classroom are not included when the decisions are being made. Fine writes about spending weeks with fellow teachers revising a curriculum proposal only to see it rejected by her administration without even looking at it. We see this now on a national scale: on July 27 I posted Education: what is wrong with this picture? in which I pointed out that the panels involved in drafting new national standards for English and Math and the support panels included a grand total of one classroom teacher and no participation by the professional organizations for the two curricular areas.
Fine is a gifted writer. She acknowledges her frustration in not being able to reach all her students, and worries about those who fall through the cracks. As a teacher myself, that draws me to her, because even after 14 years I still wrestle with the same worries. That demonstrates the kind of caring that is usually essential to reaching the most difficult students. And reading the description of the classroom, where we realize that she herself - not her school - provided the library of young adult literature for her students, that she honored them by posting their efforts at poetry, it is easy to see her as the kind of teacher who draws students to what she asks, who is effective in having her students go beyond their comfort levels. And even while expressing pride in her students effective performance on the required external test does not make up for the sense of failing students who did not succeed.
That kind of frustration can break a lesser teacher, even one with the support of her administration. If one enters the profession wanting to make a difference,or as Fine puts it,
it only seemed right that I "give back" after spending 22 years in a suburban, Ivy League bubble
those failures can cut very deeply, that can be devastating to on'e moral and sense of purpose. Even as one struggles with the sense of failure for those one did not reach, being able to persist, to try to adjust, to maintain one's effort on behalf of those students one is reaching, is critical if we are going to make a difference in the lives of the people served by the kind of school in which Fine taught. Note that I said people, not children or students. In many cases it is by what we do for those in our classroom that also inspires and sustains the adult members of their families, who seeing possibilities opening up for their children are inspired to overcome inertia and despair and themselves try to make a difference in their own lives.
What Fine describes as most devastating is the lack of respect for the profession. She reminds us that
Teaching is a grueling job, and without the kind of social recognition that accompanies professions such as medicine and law, it is even harder for ambitious young people like me to stick with it.
Here the problem is more widespread than many are willing to recognize. All professions have underachievers, and/or people who perhaps should be encouraged to leave the profession. That is certainly true of elected legislators, it is very true of lawyers (remember, that profession includes the likes of Orly Taitz), we have seen how true it was of bankers, and far too many in medical fields are more concerned with the money they make than with the real health of their patients. Yet no other profession is subject to the constant drumbeat of criticism, to the palpable lack of respect for the profession. Even a president who claims to be committed to improving education is prone to the kind of rhetoric that paints with brush strokes far too broad.
It is true in teaching, as in other fields, that some are far more effective in reaching their students, in having those students succeed no matter what measure you use - score on external tests, persistence in doing work, developing the ability to work independently in the domain. Our approach should not be to incentivize those teachers, but rather to use them to help understand how and why they are more successful, and thus to empower other teachers to greater success. Instead we see arguments for merit pay for teachers based at least in part on performance on test scores, including statements and actions by our President and his Secretary of Education, ignoring all the evidence both in education and in other fields of the ineffectiveness - and sometimes the destructiveness - of merit pay as a means of improving overall performance in the field.
Our Secretary of Education is not only insisting upon using student test performance as a key factor in making such merit pay decisions, he is also insisting upon states expanding the use of charter schools, despite a clear lack of evidence that they are any more effective overall in teaching students, as a recently released study at Stanford made clear.
Fine taught in a charter school. It is dangerous to make policy by anecdote, and in referencing her experience, it is not my intent to do so. But she illustrates very clearly that merely setting up a charter does not overcome many of the problems inherent in education, particularly in situations such as inner city minority neighborhoods. Students will arrive absent the skills and knowledge one should be able to expect at that grade level. Issues of family dysfunction, poverty, nutrition and health, are not overcome by magically doing away with the normal structure of the traditional public school, including having unions to protect the rights of the teachers. Many charters are able to select out the more difficult to educate students, or the ones whose families are not seen as being as "supportive" of the school and its mission. The hours worked by their teachers are often not sustainable, which also contributes to high turnover of staff which undercuts the effectiveness of the school.
Some charters are more successful, especially those able to develop and maintain a clear sense of mission, one which is a product of a group effort of the entire staff, not just of one person. The flexibility that allows that to happen in a charter is key. And perhaps we should acknowledge that, and rather than insisting states merely allow or even mandate more charters, start trying to give a similar flexibility to "traditional" public schools so that they can meet the needs of the students in their classes.
In any case, teaching is a key to the success of our students. We have known about the high turnover among teachers for many years. It has been an important issue since before I began my own Master of Arts in Teaching program in 1994, and it has gotten worse in the decade and a half since. If we cannot develop and maintain a sufficient core of competent or better teachers, we will not overcome the crisis of education that we currently face, which is far more than the issue of international economic competition, an issue which receives too much attention at the expense of things far more basic. We will not be educating our young people to be participants in the representative democracy we pretend to be. We will not be empowering each student to pursue that which most energizes them for work or even for avocation. We will not be equipping our students to be able to learn on their own, to be willing to take intellectual risks.
All of that requires teachers. I am about to start my 15th year of teaching. I am still learning how to be more effective for the students in my care. By all counts I am at least a pretty good teacher, more than minimally competent even on my occasional bad days - and remember, teachers are human, and like those in other fields we have days where we are not as effective.
Fine closes her piece like this:
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. As my former principal not-so-subtly put it: "The kids don't need one-year wonders. There is no such thing as a one-year wonder."
Four-year wonders are better than nothing, but still not enough.
We need to listen to the voices of teachers. Effective organizations regularly do exit interviews of those leaving, hoping thereby to be able to make adjustments to improve conditions for those remaining. We do not as a regular practice do this in education. We should. Learning why people leave is critical information.
Sarah Fine has done her own exit interview. She has taken the time and used her expressive gifts to explain her decision to leave teaching. He piece appears in the newspaper serving our national capital city. It is unfortunately that so many involved in educational policy are not in town to read it.
But we can. We can pass it on. We can reflect upon what we learn from her, and perhaps thereby from many like her who leave the teaching profession far too soon.