What makes a teacher stay teaching when everything goes wrong? What is the breaking point to make them want to quit? Almost every day there is another sad story of a teacher who says good-bye to their students and closes the classroom door for the last time.
This is especially a problem when it comes to Hispanic and black teachers who leave the classroom at a higher rate.
I have condensed a post I wrote two years ago titled, “‘I’m Mad as Hell, and I’m Not Going to Take This Anymore!’ The Real Reasons Why Teachers Stay or Quit the Profession.”
Last year the AFT and the Badass Teachers Association conducted a survey to see how teachers fared. They found many concerns.
I’m wondering how many teachers are asked by their principals to describe how they feel about teaching. How many school districts care enough about their teachers to find how they can make classroom conditions better for instruction. Do teachers get to fill out a survey about what they like and/or dislike about their teaching positions? Do superintendents visit schools and listen to concerns?
If you are a teacher today, it can be a gut-wrenching decision whether or not to stay in the classroom. Some teachers keep teaching under lousy conditions because they need the salary. Or, they believe they can still make a difference in their students’ lives. I know teachers who hope by staying they provide a cushion for children when things get tough.
Some teachers cling to hope for things to change. They believe in a better tomorrow.
I also know teachers who fight like hell from within their schools. Who take notes about the bad things that happen and who tell the world about it.
What drives teachers out of the classroom?
Here are scenarios I have collected by reading and talking to many teachers and parents:
- You are a kindergarten teacher and your principal shows up and tells you to remove the play kitchens and water tables, along with the costumes, dolls and blocks, and everything related to playtime. What do you do? They tell you it’s time to get serious about teaching and learning.
- Your school district announces there will be fewer breaks and they will now ban recess so as to have more time for test prep because they need to save the school from closing. If your students are lucky, they will get 20 minutes of recess each day, but you know that isn’t enough. PE is also on the chopping block. How do you respond, or do you say anything?
- If the principal says they can’t help it, but you are going to have to push the reading skills, administer Response to Intervention, and follow Common Core, PARCC, Smarter Balanced Assessment, and Next Generation Science Standards and you don’t think it’s good for your students, are there any steps you can take to get out of it?
- You are being pushed to do more with technology and it has little to do with your goals as a teacher.
- The school you work in is rundown and dirty. It is depressing to go to work.
- Your school board has just come out in favor of two more hours added to the school day so students can prep harder for reading. You know your students are already burned-out on all the reading reviews you do during the day. You know more time is too much, that it is the equivalent of child abuse. What do you do?
- A student in your class acts out. You know they need help but there is no place to turn. Some teachers have several students in their classes who are troubled and need additional support.
- Your dear friends, the art and music teachers have just been let go, and now you must “blend” these subjects into reading and math. You know the quality of these subjects will never be the same again for your students. How do you proceed?
- You have angry parents who want you to quit teaching to the test, and they don’t want you administering the test to their child. They want you to stand up against testing. You don’t like the high-stakes tests either.
- How do you manage all the data collection when you want to be doing more meaningful work? How do you support parents and do what’s right for your students without losing your job?
- You are teaching high school and suddenly you are told your school will move to a block schedule and each student will face eight classes instead of the customary six. You know this will be overload for the high achieving students who will most likely add more advanced placement classes to their schedule, and arduous for students who are already struggling with learning and attention difficulties. Do you speak out?
- You are a general ed. teacher but your class sizes are increasing and the administration has added more students in your class with a variety of disabilities and some ELL students too. How will you reach so many students with so many needs?
- The school library just lost most of its books, and the shelves are now almost empty. One of the reasons you are told is to align the books to the curriculum. You have also lost your school librarian. Is there a way you can get the books and the librarian back?
- You have poor children in your class. Some you think might be homeless and others look sick. Your school lost its nurse a long time ago. Your school counselor is not readily available if you have one. How do you help these children and also the child who has a severe toothache?
I’m sure I am leaving something out. Feel free to add to this list.
Teachers must decide…do they stay or do they go? Either way, they choose, teachers usually feel guilty.
There are some who say that teachers who recognize the draconian classroom goals and objectives and their professional emasculation, should all quit. They should announce to the world that they hate high-stakes testing, or Common Core, Competency-Based Education (CBE), or an innumerable array of insidious reforms, and then they should proudly stake their career on their beliefs and walk out the door.
Some do this, and then they go fight like hell for the rights of teachers and students.
Some teachers of like mind, ban together and put up a fight, like the teachers at Seattle’s Garfield High School who boycotted testing.
Some teachers cry for a while, then they turn away. They believe the only thing they can do is work on something else that will bring joy and happiness. They focus on their corner of the world, where they feel they have some control.
Who’s the best kind of teacher? That is not for me to judge, although I wonder about teachers who buy into every school reform that comes their way.
Every teacher must make up their own mind what their career means to them and how to best serve the children in their care. And there are always a whole lot of deeply personal outside factors that enter into the decision.
My only wish for any teacher is that whatever route they take they make peace with it, and that they continue to care for children somehow, in some way, because that is why they became a teacher in the first place.
Mike in Texas says
Here’s one that’s happened to me twice.
I interviewed for a position, a step-up that would get me out of the classroom. Not only did I not get the job but no one bothered to tell me.
The first time it happened it was 3 and a half months before I found out, even though my principal was on the committee. The 2nd time I waited 3 weeks, after being told I would know something by the end of the week. I emailed the person in charge of the department and got what I called a “Snickers apology”, “Sorry. I though someone else was going to notify you” I’m a 20+ year veteran in a school district that has been cited for its massive yearly teacher turnover.
Nancy Bailey says
Unkind, unprofessional, and totally uncalled for. No wonder you have a massive teacher turnover in your district. But thanks for sharing. My guess is, unfortunately, that there are other teachers treated as shabbily.
ciedie aech says
Are we missing the fact that MANY teachers are/have been pushed out of their teaching jobs against their will? Quitting is not always the “option.” ciedieaech.wordpress.com/2015/09/19/the-disappeared
Nancy Bailey says
No, Ciedie. But here are the reminders. And thank you.
Jennifer Berringet says
I am an art teacher. They have threatened to cut my position every year . each year,I pack as if it is the last day for me. It is a run down facility. My colleagues just out up with all the things you have listed, ‘it has always been this way’.. They are closer to retirement and don’t want to rock the boat. Young teachers find they cannot find support to make much needed changes..so they leave.. Every year we lose our young trachers because of entrenched top down policies and teachers who are just managing their own classroom ( having given up on changing anything)
There is a lot of favoritism shone for those who play along and a hard time for those who do not.
Nancy Bailey says
How troubling that you live with such uncertainty about your position, Jennifer. It should be an exciting endeavor to be an art teacher. I am sorry. I hope something better comes your way. Thank you for sharing.
Juliaane Cross says
I think a lot of teachers in our state just put their heads down, follow what the curriclum-du-jour is, and just say to themselves, “This too shall pass.” Some have more buy-in than others. Slowly our school is getting back music and shop. Ther has been a staggering amount of money the state has been spent on programs- America’s Choice, Edison running around our school and spying on teachers, datadatadata. Some of the Edison folks quit. You could just tell some weren’t into it, but initially were on board to help the kids. Now we have Spring Board which I haven’t taught, and now have to figure out how to teach my SpEd pullout ELA kids. Pick and choose, I guess. Data collection , eValuate, Achieve Reading and Math remedial programs, STAR testing ( RTI), once a month, which shows the kids if they’ve improved. Near the end of the year, most of the kids just don’t care. Then in late April to the end of May, we had SBAC testing.!! We were all utterly exhausted. Sigh. We start up August 1. Now we have to incorporate Chromebooks into all this. They won’t be ready for a month. And we still don’t have a librarian. Sigh…
Nancy Bailey says
I cannot believe Edison is back in the picture. Your school sounds like a bunch of corporate ads! Juliaane, I don’t know how you do it! But maybe there is a reason teachers put their heads down. They’re tired! I am happy you are getting music and shop back. Maybe things will turn around. I hope so. Thank you for sharing.
Romina Sparano says
Nancy, where does a solution start? How? I helped two starting charter schools in my state (that gave teachers a bit more leeway though less pay and benefits) and ultimately decided they were not for my fmaliy (I could see how much MORE kids would get in public schools if the parents and administrations were allowed to work together!). I have opted mostly for public schools, some private and intermittent home schooling. I’m very lucky being able to support their education in several ways, but we cannot count on all parents being teachers. It’s ridiculous. Our public schools are the conrerstone of our democracy, educating future citizens. The frustration for teachers is reaching a tipping point, and worse, many young teachers have no clue that there is education to be taught and learnt in interdisciplinary ways and without overtesting! HELP!
Nancy Bailey says
Thanks, Romina. I think one solution involves bright parents and teachers recognizing the importance of public schools and what is happening to them. I think that’s the first hurdle. Parents and teachers need to work together too. Thank you!
I am an elementary general music teacher and am very fortunate to have found a job at a private school.
However, I have peers in public schools nationwide who teach “caseloads” of over a thousand students per week, in class sizes that are double what the classroom teachers deal with (literally they are sent two class groups at a time). They see their students for only part of the year, or they see them only every 7th day, with many music lessons missed for testing, “pre-testing”, test rallies, etc. Yet they are still held responsible for providing proof of student growth, when they see their students for only a half hour of instruction per week – instruction that happens *maybe* every seventh day between January and March. The main reason I left my old school is because of the feeling that I and all of the “special subject” teachers were merely glorified babysitters. My principal even told me, word for word, after I had written up my first student to the office in over two years, “It doesn’t matter what you do in class. Just don’t send them to the office.”
You know you have a bad working environment (not to mention an incompetent boss) when it doesn’t even occur to your supervisor that something is wrong after they have just told you to your face that what you do at your job “doesn’t matter”.
Nancy Bailey says
Whew! I hope we see changes and they bring back the arts and those special classes that keep students interested in school. Music is so important! Thank you MQ!
Kate Sacco says
I am one of those teachers who fight like hell from within. I take notes and I write about the experiences and tell hard, honest truths. As a result, I have been subjected to continuous harassment from the district. I have had my words twisted, my intentions maligned and my reputation tarnished. The past two years have been difficult and created a great deal of stress and anxiety in my life. I am counting the remaining years that I must teach before I can leave. I love the students and I love teaching but the continued abuse from above is making it difficult to do what I love. My heart breaks for the children.
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you! But I am sorry what they put you through. No teacher ever thought it would be like this. Take care of yourself, Kate. Best wishes and thanks for sharing.
Jeff Gaynor says
I just regretfully ended a 38-year teaching career. Though I’ve taught in a high income, high achieving district and school (though one that struggles with under-achieving under class students), with great kids and caring parents, and had no intention to retire, the fact that I am no longer permitted to teach the students in front of me according to my professional understanding of their needs drove my decision. In fact, with staff morale at a nadir, I had the advantage of refusing to spend the hours needed to devote to our new onerous teacher evaluation system, one which would also distort my teaching to serve data rather than kids.
But my dedication to teaching and to students and society remains, so at the urging of a large and dedicated group of parents and teachers, I will be running for school board in November. If I get elected, I will have the same expectations that I did in my classroom: ask questions, think critically, and get to the truth, rather than present the facade that the administration and current board propagates, while usurping decision making, and rejecting collaboration with teachers and the community.
Nancy Bailey says
I am sorry. What a good but sad example of a teacher driven out of the classroom. I wish you the best in your school board run Jeff Gaynor!
You missed one. The one that sees our kids as commodities or cogs in an economic machine.
I’m one of those that fight from within. But what I fight most is the narrative of reform.
So often I hear this narrative from on high that says ‘we have to be accountable for outcomes…are you saying we shouldn’t have high expectations of our teachers and students’. It hits right at the heart of many teachers, they want to do the right thing by both thier students and their bosses. In their gut they know there is something seriously wrong with this line of reasoning, but the narrative is so forceful that it sucks all the oxygen from the air and they always counter with ‘we all want what is best for our students’
What is not realised is that we are not fighting a particular program or a schedule of tests but a mindset that sees children as commodities still under development until they can be slotted in as cogs in the economic machine. Which in turn is in comptition with the other economic machines of other nations.
They hold over our head the idea of our students failing to thrive in an economic system ‘you want them to get good jobs, don’t you?’
Its this type of mindset and narrative that shuts down alternative perspectives. Persectives that see children as more than just future economic cogs for the machine but a real genuine human beings deserving of respect and dignity.
Teachers, educators, parents and others will change nothing if they just continue to fight the programs or tests that are a product of this kind of ‘economic efficiency’ thinking. They must confront the type of thinking that breeds these reforms with a counter narrative. A narrative that puts the wellbeing of the child here and now at the forefront (not some distant future commonly touted as ‘do this now and they will benifit from a good job and improve wellbeing in the future’)
The biggest problen is that many teachers and educators don’t have the language or research based knowledge to counter this ‘economic efficiency’ narrative. So I fight to give them this language and perspective from within the school. An alternative narrative that says we must provide social justice for our students NOW, as in, in the present.
But its hard because what that really means is we have to listen to what our students want and trust that they know what they need to improve their own wellbeing both now and into the future. That means breaking down a second mindset, a patriarchal one that has been ingrained in society for hundreds of generations. There are unfortunately far too many educators, parents etc that still hold to this mindset.
I stay because the type of mindset change we need happens one conversation at a time. If I can shine a light on an alternative way of seeing education, of its underlying purpose then I have made a difference. And in the meantime I give my students as much dignity, respect and voice as the system will currently allow me to do so. It may not be much but it may just help those one or two students in my classes that are at risk of falling through the cracks.
“They must confront the type of thinking that breeds these reforms with a counter narrative.” I believe you “hit the nail on the head” with this comment. Sadly, this type of thinking comes from non-educators: billionaires ( like Bill & Melinda Gates ), Pearson Co. ( monopoly on production of testing & Common Core materials ) , the U.S. President, state governors, & public achool administrators. THEY use their money & power to CONTROL & DICTATE mandates, while intentionally excluding the education professionals, TEACHERS, from discussion & decision making! THEN, they have the nerve to BLAME & EVALUATE TEACHERS for/on all of education’s ills! In many schools, teachers are threatened with insubordination & being fired if they even voice their professional opinion about curriculm &’testing!
Nancy Bailey says
And they wonder why teens feel disconnected. Thank you for your meaningful and well-thought out comment. I couldn’t have said it any better, Sarah. And Karen’s reply is indeed excellent. Thank you both!
How about the amount of due process paperwork a special education teacher must do? being expected to teach full time and write 25 iep’s and about 10 complete comprehensive evaluations when given no time to do them?
Stacy S. says
After 17 years of teaching, I just resigned a day before the beginning of a school year. Something I NEVER, EVER thought I would do. I, too am an art teacher and I’ve known since the start of my career that my area is usually marginalized (at best). My parents were teachers, so I even knew what I was getting into before I started.
The past five years have been a struggle. I had a principal who had no respect for the art area and as a result the scheduling was exactly what she needed to have happen, regardless of the effect on my ability to teach the subject or any of the needs of the students. So this summer I switched schools, thinking that an administrative change would help. I loved my new administrator and teaching team, but the draconian requirements of the district pushed my stress level so high before school even started that I knew my only remaining option was to leave the field of education.
Unfortunately it IS the same everywhere. Teachers being scrutinized for things like dress code, clocking in and out of school (and having their pay docked if they forget to do either…). You hired me as a professional and an expert at my job. You are paying me a salary. Do not treat me like an unqualified entity.
Then there is always the scheduling, especially when you are a special area teacher – my 45 minute planning time 5 1/2 hours into the day was just not going to work for me (and that was the only time during the day when I was not with students, even during lunch). Like one of the other comments said, teachers need their jobs and they adjust to these demands and this type of treatment. And I did for a long time.
My 20 year-old son was upset when I told him of y decision and tried to convince me to stay. He told me the students needed the types of information and activities I teach and that I am an excellent teacher. “They’ll miss out if you’re not there to bring them those projects, Mom.” As meaningful and touching as his words were, I can no longer sacrifice my mental and physical health to a career which takes that sacrifice for granted, it’s almost a job expectation these days.
And so, at my age, I embark on a new career path. I have no idea what it will be at this point, but I now know where my breaking point is.
Nancy Bailey says
Hi Stacy, I am sorry to hear this, but I understand. Art should be a joyous subject to teach and if it isn’t enjoyable, why do it? If you can step away maybe you can find something where you teach on your own or find an entirely different path. Whatever it is, good luck, and please let us hear how you are doing. Yours is not an unusual story I am sorry to say. Thank you for sharing.