Unexcused Absence

With this letter, I am resigning my position as sixth grade math and science teacher …

My decision to leave the classroom was a difficult one because I enjoy working with children. If you had asked me as a small girl what I wanted to do when I grew up, I would have replied, “I want to be a teacher.” I could not imagine doing anything else. Yet, my love for teaching dwindled until I became burned out and weary. I don’t remember a single event that caused my effectiveness to die. It occurred slowly in an ongoing progression of parent-teacher conferences, meetings, report cards, and paperwork that I had previously accepted as the work that made teaching possible.

Feeling depressed about my decision to leave the classroom, I decided to do some research into the profession that makes up four percent of the work force. I learned that there are five times as many teachers as lawyers and professors, and twice as many as registered nurses. I was shocked to discover that nearly one thousand teachers leave the field of teaching every school day. The cost of replacing teachers is a staggering 4.9 billion dollars a year.

Teacher shortage continues to be a problem even with new aggressive teacher recruitment processes. Experts predict that we will need more than 2 million new teachers in the next decade. Moreover, shortages are most acute in urban and rural schools and in high-need subject areas such as special education, math, and science.

The statistics for turnover among new teachers are shocking. About 20 percent of all new hires leave the classroom within three years. In inner-city schools (like the one I taught at in Raleigh, NC), the numbers are even worse, with as many as 50 percent of new teachers fleeing the profession during their first five years of teaching.

Why do new teachers leave?
The first-year teacher with no experience is typically assigned the same tasks as a veteran teacher. Moreover, the new teachers get the teaching assignments that the veterans don’t want, like remedial classes. New teachers say they feel overwhelmed, isolated, and unsupported. They enter their first classroom confident they will change the world. But, discipline problems, angry parents and the tremendous workload soon undermine that confidence.

Current research shows that teacher shortages are not caused by a deficit in the supply of teachers as formerly thought, but rather a revolving door, where teachers depart their jobs for reasons other than retirement. When asked why they left the teaching profession, teachers list the following as the reasons for fleeing:
• Lack of job satisfaction and the desire to find a better job — 42% of teachers site this as their reason for leaving
• Too heavy a work load
• Lack of planning time
• Low salaries
• Insufficient support from administrators
• Discipline problems and problematic student behavior
• Inadequate decision-making power over school policy

For me, it was a combination of all these factors. Contrary to the belief that teachers work only seven hours per day, my workday began at 7 A.M. and ended 12 to 14 hours later. In addition, I worked about ten hours each weekend writing lesson plans and grading papers. Any effective teacher puts in similar long hours. If they do not, then they are not a good teacher, period. Teaching students is only a small part of the job. I spent the majority of my working hours planning lessons, preparing materials, grading papers and meeting with and phoning parents. Administrative meetings, conferences, and duties such as bus and cafeteria monitoring were additional requirements.

Most teachers cannot afford the luxury of taking the summers off. That is a myth believed only by folks who have never looked at a teacher’s paycheck. During my summers off, I wrote grants, taught summer school, worked as an intern in a pathology lab, waitressed, and anything else that enabled me to live throughout the next school year on my teacher’s salary.

Teacher compensation ensures that revolving door stays open. Teachers are still paid less than professionals of comparable education and skills. Money talks. It tells scientists and mathematicians that we do not want them in our classrooms. School districts simply cannot pay a graduate with a chemistry degree a wage comparable to what they could make in a chemistry lab.

There is consensus among educators that the single most important factor driving student achievement is quality teachers. However, that consensus falls apart outside the educational arena. Teachers are not valued and respected for their contributions, even though many successful people attribute their success to one of their teachers.

Perhaps part of the lack of respect for teachers stems from the fact that teaching has been a female dominated field. And further, perhaps part of the shortage of teachers is a direct result of women choosing careers other than teaching, leaving holes in the schools that will need to be filled.

I am happy to be embarking on this new chapter of my life as an educational researcher. While it will never be as rewarding teaching, it also does not come with all the pressures and stress of the everyday life of a classroom teacher.

I congratulate teachers everywhere for the tremendous job they are doing everyday, despite terrific odds stacked against their success.

Further Reading:
Attracting and Keeping Quality Teachers: http://www.nea.org/teachershortage/index.html

Of Teacher Shortages and Quality: http://www.hoover.org/publications/ednext/3210656.html

School Districts Approve Plans to Link Teacher Pay with Student Performance: http://www.voanews.com/specialenglish/2006-04-12-voa1.cfm

Teacher Attrition: A Costly Loss to the Nation and to the States: http://www.all4ed.org/publications/TeacherAttrition.pdf

Teachers and the Quality of Education: http://www.unesco.org/education/efa/know_sharing/flagship_initiatives/teachers1.shtml

Teacher Turnover, Teacher Shortages, and the Organization of Schools:
http://depts.washington.edu/ctpmail/PDFs/Turnover-Ing-01-2001.pdf

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One Response to “Unexcused Absence”

  1. I’m right at the end of my University teaching course and am currently looking for my first teaching job … and I’ve already come to the conclusion that the main problem with the teaching profession as we know it is that there is simply too much … well, crap that teachers have to do each and every day.

    Most of the paperwork is unnecessary and wastes huge amounts of time, staff meetings which accomplish nothing, curriculum documents which could be just as easily a quarter of their size and still get the information across and so much more …

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