My wife wants to quit her job. She told me as much on a walk this afternoon. I wasn’t overly concerned. This has become an annual ritual in the early months of every spring term. Like so many teachers, she reaches a point in her year where the demands on her time and emotional energy exceed her capacity to give. She won’t actually quit–though the desire is real–but I was reminded by a recent Quillette article just how many teachers do leave and just how facile the usual impulse to scapegoat pay really is.
This isn’t to say that teacher salaries aren’t paltry compared to the training and task we require of them (although my wife does make more at her snooty exurban school than I do at my backwoods college). It’s just that raising pay doesn’t address the real problems. The Quillette article references four areas of concern for current teachers that drive high attrition rates (citing statistics between 8% and 40% nationally): poor administration, oversized classrooms, paperwork, and discipline. Low pay is not among them–after all, teachers know what they’re getting into in that regard before they choose the career.
Administration is an easy target if only because it is so glaringly appropriate. Advocates of higher pay often note the salaries of administrators relative to teachers (a common refrain in higher education as well) to suggest where budgets might be trimmed. The problem isn’t just with pay though; it is with divergent priorities. Administrators are responsible to parents and to school boards. The former cares only about education in the very narrowest sense of ensuring a positive experience for their child. The latter cares about education only in the bureaucratic sense: test scores, attendance rates, funding. Teachers have the luxury neither of committing fully to a single student nor of abstracting all their students into numbers. They must grapple with the lived reality of the classroom. It’s unsurprising then that, as the article notes, there is so much anecdotal evidence of endemic conflict between teachers and administrators.
Overcrowding in classrooms is another familiar target and one that cannot be addressed through pay raises. In fact, as I have already suggested, one radical solution might be to pay teachers less. Alternatively, districts could work to put more non-teaching adults into a classroom. This was the approach at the school where I did my own clinical teaching, and it proved effective as long as the auxiliary staff and teachers worked deliberately together. However it is achieved, it is critical that the ratio of adults to children in a room be improved. A better paid, better educated, better qualified teacher still cannot effectively instruct 25 six-year-olds at once.
The complaint about paperwork is one I have heard floating out in the ether but not one that I have encountered from actual teachers or experienced in my own brief contact with secondary education. Professional development, peer learning communities, and staff meetings are never greeted with much enthusiasm, but neither do they consume much time or intellectual energy. I was once, during clinical teaching, made to dance around the room as part of a professional development, an approach I found demeaning (as many education professional developments often are) but not burdensome. It was enough to make me want to leave the room but not education. My wife, meanwhile, looks forward to her monthly professional development days, has never heard of a fad speaker brought in to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, and usually has something she has learned to share when she gets home.
The final point, however, on discipline has been a topic of regular discussion in our household over the last year. A new policy in my wife’s district that requires all students to be in the general classroom regardless of behavior (unless they have an IEP that excuses them from the room) has been among the greatest sources of frustration this year. A new policy of negotiating with students (I prefer to think of them as tiny little terrorists whenever I hear the policy explained) ensures that teachers who bring discipline issues to administrators get met with a refresher on how to love their little ones into submission.
I had my own Twlight Zone-esque experiences as a clinical teacher that, in large part, drove me away from secondary education as a career option. In one instance, a boy wore a pornographic sweatshirt to school–it was a mosaic of cartoon girls’ faces contorted in orgasm and covered in semen. (Cartoon semen, not real semen…although adolescent boys being what they are…) How the boy made it to my fourth period class is a mystery, but I reported it to the vice principal. Not unlike the anecdote in the article, my administrator asked me “But how do you know…” (the poor man had apparently never witnessed the female orgasm) and “Maybe he just doesn’t realize…” Fortunately, the student was all to proud to confess when confronted. He had apparently been trying to bate teachers all morning into reporting him, but a surplus of apathy or dearth of courage had gotten him all the way to lunch unscathed.
A less savory incident occurred with a licensure candidate teaching at my school. Some students took a dislike to him and decided to start a rumor that he was a sexual predator who had come to the middle school to look for a new wife. The situation that unfolded was tragic, though not as tragic as it could be. The rumor was reported to the administration, but, because it had not been discovered until close to the end of the day on a Friday, administrators decided to postpone confronting the students until the weekend. The teaching candidate in question twisted in the wind over the weekend, while the students carried on their little joke now attaching an accusatory hashtag to it on social media.
When Monday came around and the students were confronted, they all demurred that it had just been a harmless prank (and one of the central figures, a low performing students, swore he didn’t even know what a pedophile was). Because one of the students was the daughter of a teacher and the granddaughter of another teacher, the administration decided that rather than any disciplinary action they would just ensure no more contact between the students in question and the teaching candidate. When they were in his assigned class, he was banished to the teachers lounge and the cooperating teacher took over. In the end, concerns liability dictated everyone’s behavior and that prospective teacher became a casualty of attrition before he ever got his first full posting.
As with everything on that site, the sounds points in the Quillette article are mixed in with a little casual racism, a lot of self pity, and a fair helping of naïve academic idealism. The last of these is why I really gave up on teaching in public schools. I need to be able to demand more from students and assess on performance, and those are not (for better or worse) the prevailing aims of public education. In the end though, the broader point rings very true and needs to be repeated as often and as loudly as possible: the public education system is broken and more money will not fix it. It isn’t even that it is an incomplete fix. It is the wrong fix. Like giving a Band-Aid to a child with a fever, pay raises may make teachers feel better but they won’t solve the real attrition crisis.