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Posted at 2:00 PM ET, 12/ 9/2010

Teachers: How much more can we take?

By Valerie Strauss

This powerful piece and the one that follows will give flip sides of what teachers are living with today: deep frustration at being scapegoated, and determination to continue to find ways to improve schools and educate children.

The post was written by John Norton, co-founder of the Teacher Leaders Network and first published on Teachers Magazine’s space on Education Week’s website. Norton, a former education journalist and vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board, is currently a communications consultant for the Center for Teaching Quality and the Alabama Best Practices Center.

This is long but well worth the time to read every word. You can find more comments from teachers at the site.

By John Norton
During a recent chat in the Teacher Leaders Network daily online discussion group, it became apparent that many established, expert teachers who once planned to teach well into their 60s are now rethinking that decision. While some of these frustrated teachers work in challenging urban environments, others teach in suburban and rural schools, in many subjects and grades.

As one teacher after another described working conditions they say are taking the joy out of a profession they care about deeply, a kind of virtual gloom descended on the conversation.

“I can hardly stand to read this thread,” wrote one high school English teacher. “It sounds so familiar. And I am only 55. Wondering how much more I can take.” Other teachers noted that some younger colleagues are also expressing career doubts amid budget cuts, growing class sizes, and increasingly oppressive directives from above.

One theme that recurred again and again is expressed in this comment by an award-winning National Board certified teacher working in an urban middle school:

"I believe a lot of teachers have had enough and are ready to retire, and many will. There aren’t enough young people willing to come into teaching, and those who do are statistically unlikely to stay. I fear for the future of our profession and for our children for generations to come. Who will teach them?"

Here are some other brief excerpts from this lengthy, still-continuing dialogue.

Linda launched the discussion:
I came to teaching as a second profession when I was in my 30s. I knew right away it was where I was supposed to be, and I don’t regret it for a moment. Even last year, I said I would teach until I was 65 or until they had to remind me where my classroom was as I toddled along with my walker. Retirement was the furthest thing from my mind.

But around the end of last school year, things started to look different. I work in an urban school system in the Southeast. In nearly every district teacher gathering I’ve been part of this fall, I have heard many highly accomplished, experienced teachers saying the same thing: They were checking into the state retirement website to see if/when they are eligible to retire (in spite of their long-standing plan to work for years longer).

My district has had massive teacher layoffs the past two years, with resulting increased class sizes. Layoffs were not based on seniority, degrees or accomplishments, but solely on student test scores and teacher evaluations. Furthermore, the district is proceeding with a pay-for-performance plan, which will go into effect at the latest in 2014. It is not following any kind of best practices research in its structure. Pay would be dependent solely on teacher “effectiveness,” which every indication suggests will be based primarily on test scores.

I know that all of this is causing our most experienced, most accomplished, most prepared teachers to rethink their plans for work versus retirement. I also know that absenteeism among teachers is on the rise. At my high-needs schools, most of our teachers are very young, and I am the only nationally certified teacher. We have already had seven teachers resign since school started in August.

I’ve never before questioned my commitment to teaching the way I am now, and I have never felt so discouraged about the profession in general or the future of my school district or the welfare of and opportunities for our students. I’m not really ready to stop working, but I’m starting to think I’ve lost heart for teaching. I don’t know if I can get it back.

A teacher in California replied:
There are two issues this raises. One is very personal and has to do with your own life path. The other is bigger, which is about why it is that so many experienced teachers are getting ready to throw in the towel much earlier than planned. This will have a lot of repercussions down the line, and I think it could be generations before our schools recover what they are about to lose.

I am getting ready to "retire" from my school district as well, although I will only be 53 years old next June. I have had enough, and I am ready for a change. I am not really sure what will come. But I am ready for a new chapter in my life.

A Michigan teacher offered her bottom line:
I’ve never thought about retiring. It is so far off my radar, I have never even looked at how much money my plan will give me or the requirements to set the process in place. I’ve always said I would teach until it isn’t fun anymore. To me, that’s the bottom line. Each of us has to decide in our own heart whether we still love being there or not.

Linda replied:
That’s what I said, too. That I would teach until it was no longer fun. I think what I am feeling is somewhat beyond just being tired because it’s November (or name whatever month you’d like).

This is a more serious discontent, exhaustion and frustration than I usually feel. And I’m just not alone in this feeling. I am concerned about what comes after us, and I would like to help the next generation of teachers. I just don’t know who that generation will be if things continue as they are now.

A rural teacher in the Deep South wrote:
I am dismayed that so many great veteran teachers are feeling the need to either retire altogether or leave the classroom. I can’t remember when teacher morale has been as low as it is now around our state. Teachers are not just November-tired; they are tired of being harassed and unsupported. They are tired of watching their students suffer and having their hands tied when it comes to teaching ethically.

A teacher at a large suburban high school wrote:
Linda, I’m sad that teachers are being treated so poorly in your district. It’s probably not comforting to hear that what you’re experiencing is happening all over the country, but please know that you are not alone. Morale in my district is lower than a frog’s belly on mowing day, and I teach in what’s considered to be a really good system. Like you and others here, I do wonder what is going to happen to public education in this country. I feel that there is a storm building. I just hope that when it breaks, someone will FINALLY listen and "get it."

A teacher in Los Angeles wrote:
Unfortunately, Linda, I think a lot of what has you discouraged to this point is happening all around the country. Today we got yet another letter from our union asking us to support our classified employees, as the district is apparently ready to cut even deeper. Our classrooms are filthy, and there’s been a huge upswing in fights on campus; I’m sure it’s because supervision is now almost non-existent. Education truly seems on the edge of disaster.

A 30-year veteran with Teacher of the Year honors wrote to Linda:
I’m feeling so very sad for you and for your school because it’s such a loss of energy and commitment when teachers such as yourself are worn down and boxed in until they lose their joy in their work.

Like you, I am beginning to wonder how long I will last. I’d planned on teaching at least until I was 65. Now I’m wondering if I’ll make it two more years. It’s not the kids. The demographics of our neighborhood have become more challenging, but that’s okay. Kids are kids; And these kids need someone to care about them, invest in them, and challenge them. But it’s the micromanagement, the factory-laborer mindset, the constant push to do one more duty, attend one more meeting, and follow one more prescriptive plan that is weighing me down and wearing me out.

And at the risk of sounding egotistical and maybe paranoid, I sense that rather than viewing my above-average amount of experience as a teacher leader as an asset to be utilized, my district level administrators seem to perceive it as a problem to be contained. As I watch gifted warhorse educators that I’ve worked with for over 20 years begin to buckle and the five-to ten-year teachers declare "Not for another 20 years, no way!" and walk out the door, I am deeply concerned about the fate of our profession, our kids, and therefore, the fate of our nation.

A high school science teacher, who retired reluctantly last year, wrote:
I’ve found a part-time teaching job at a small university that allows me to still work with students. As I talk with my friends working now in the public schools, they echo what many here are saying: new directives daily, the expectation that teachers will cover classes during their "planning periods," more duties, larger classes, lack of respect and appreciation from administrators, and more. Realizing that they are coming to hate what they’re experiencing and seeing the stress on their faces makes me far more content with not being there.

Linda concluded:
I’m going back and forth between being relieved that I am not alone and being disheartened that so many other teacher leaders in my age range are experiencing the nearly identical feelings and questionings that I am.

I never wanted to leave this profession feeling so beat down and so concerned about the future of public schools. I believe we are facing a crisis in public education, but not the one the media or the national policymakers are claiming. In a short time, there will be very few experienced teachers, and new teachers will leave at an even higher rate than they currently are. Talk about low teacher effectiveness.

Isn’t it ironic and sad that the most effective teachers (and I am not talking test scores here, I am talking about teachers who foster a love of learning and a joy in discovery and being curious) are the ones being pushed out? I’m worn out, and that is the bottom line.

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Are these simply the voices of disillusioned workers, weary after so many years of hard work?

Or is something more going on?

You can read more comments from teachers by going to http://bit.ly/eBr2a3

The following post will offer solutions to transforming conditions in troubled public schools that are part of a new report from the Center for Teaching Quality written by 14 urban teachers from around the country.


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Follow my blog every day by bookmarking washingtonpost.com/answersheet. And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our Higher Education page at washingtonpost.com/higher-ed Bookmark it!


By Valerie Strauss  | December 9, 2010; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Teachers  | Tags:  teachers, teaching profession, urban schools, urban teachers, veteran teachers  
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Next: Teachers: What we need to do to fix schools

Comments

"Is something more going on.....?"

Among other thoughts:

Teachers have mostly been part of a hard-working middle-class ethic, and the middle class has been subjected to methodical down-sizing for some time now.

Teachers are one of the last strongholds of middle-class America, and cynically, I think they are being attacked and punished by corporate-minded powers-that-be because largely they have Democratic party affiliations and are dedicated to teaching their students to not only be well-rounded citizens, but critical thinkers.

Teachers have often been expected to be the unspoken torchbearers of American "values" to pass on to the young, particularly in the absence of religious institutions, adequate parenting or trust in the government.

What values are being passed on now?

Schools reflect society; are students stressed, going hungry or sleep deprived? Maybe a parent has lost a job. Is there more violence in schools? You don't have to go to Afghanistan; check the neighborhood, tv shows and movies near you. Are there more drugs in the schools? Check out the drinking and drugs among adults and the drug wars we are fighting.
Do students dress too provocatively? Check out the designer clothing and lingerie that is advertised on tv & metro buses - VICTORIA's SECRET is now on prime time tv..........etc., etc., etc.


Corporations need to take responsibility for the way they influence our young; teachers need to take back the schools from the politicians and business interests
who are tying their hands and breaking the promise of our country.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | December 9, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

As a long-time teacher at a state school for the deaf, I feel the same distress as all the teachers who have posted here. I am extremely concerned about the future of education. Recently I awoke from a nightmare in which I was trying to defend my colleagues from the negative and untrue opinions expressed by an anonymous woman attending our school Open House. In response to my statements in support of my colleagues, she approached me and attempted to strangle me! That was extreme, but unfortunately seems figuratively apt. President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned almost exactly half a century ago about the potential for danger in the collusion of powers he called the military-industrial complex. What we are being faced with today is the co-opting and undermining of the most fundamental public service of a democratic society—-public schooling. The agenda that is being pushed by multi-millionaire corporate executives, hedge fund managers, and ruthless ideologues, and that will financially benefit an ever-expanding cadre of for-profit educational enterprises at taxpayer expense, not only demeans teachers and the human work they valiantly perform every day under difficult circumstances, but also de-stabilizes an institution that is vitally necessary to the human beings it serves. Of course teachers are not satisfied with the status quo. Of course teachers want all of their students to achieve to their maximum potential. However, the general public is being duped by reasonable-sounding rhetoric—-rhetoric from top education officials, from the Secretary of Education to many state education commissioners and superintendents—-about standardized test scores providing an accurate measure of learning and growth. Learning is an organic process. Students need time to assimilate knowledge, to build connections, and to grow in understanding. Students are not knowledge consumers, nor are teachers knowledge ATMs. The policies of relentless testing, of generating reams of (meaningless) data, and of punishing students, teachers, and schools, result from an ominous convergence of the crassest elements of capitalism and a top-down short-sighted ideological mindset suggestive of totalitarianism. If all the millions and millions of dollars that have been, are being, and will be spent on testing, prepping, and data crunching were spent on eliminating childhood poverty in the United States of America, which is a national disgrace, our children would come to school neurologically, nutritionally, emotionally, and socially ready and eager to learn, and would achieve at high levels. Children need and deserve to be taught by wise human beings who interact with them as unique human beings, not by technocratic info-managers who use computerized printouts of students’ individualized short-comings to prescribe narrow remedies. As citizens of a democracy, we need to serve our students and their families and communities by resisting the co-opting of public education.

Posted by: shakenbutstirredup | December 9, 2010 4:38 PM | Report abuse

I told my mother after 6 years of teaching that there would be a shortage of teachers because of the unprofessional treatment teachers received. That was in 1976.

I later second guessed myself, since it had been my misfortune to work for Principals who were either crazy or clueless and thought it was just my problem.

It has taken longer than I anticipated for the profession to reach this point, but I see it every day on the faces of the teachers I work with...be they young or more experienced. No one smiles.

We attend sessions on bullying...but are ourselves bullied. When we question the wisdom of a decision, we are accused of not liking children. At age 64 I am expected to turn in my lesson plans for a grade. We have meetings for collaboration...only leave out the specialists. At these meetings the particiapants, who have years of teaching experience, leave not feeling better, but feeling more inept.

Our professional dev has become redundant and worthless, and mandated "just because they can." When expected to make-up inclement weather days, we are docked pay if we happen to be sick on a make-up day...and are threatened with being docked for everything.

Prof dev and 21st Century skills training are taking away from my time to plan. And planning time is being cut....funny, one would think planning for quality instruction would be just as important as the delivery of engaging and active instruction.

We are expected to attend mandatory unpaid training on our own time. We aren't preparing teachers for 21st Century skills, we are taking the teaching profession back to the 1800's when teachers were "old maids" with no family or personnal life...the professional and personal life is being sucked out of all of us.

And how can that be beneficial to students?

Posted by: ilcn | December 9, 2010 4:42 PM | Report abuse

When I began teaching elementary I got to plan my day, week, quarter, year. There was a math curriculum with room for professional judgement but there was little else. Now every subject's curriculum is dictated down to the activity level with a very rigid pacing expectation.

Since the standardized curriculum has been in place we've now moved to standardizing the pedagogy. I am now expected to have my students in groups of 4, to have an award system, to have visible an array of artifacts on my walls, and specific chart paper displays as evidence of implementing the newest promising practice.

My planning is done for me. My instructional choices have been decided. If I'm skeptical I'd better not communicate it.

I came into this profession knowing I'd never get rich but that I could be challenged by the minute to assess my students' knowledge and critically choose the most effective method for introducing the new learning. But that critical reflective piece is no longer needed...except it is.

Posted by: CDuerr | December 9, 2010 5:48 PM | Report abuse

Our bureaucratized, politicized, unionized government-monopoly school system is a disaster of catastrophic proportions that imperils this country's future. It's past time for total separation of school and state. Let families make their own decisions, including the teachers to whom they will entrust their child.

Posted by: thebump | December 9, 2010 6:57 PM | Report abuse

@ CDuerr - uniform curricular standards exist to help teacher-proof the material from bad teachers. This is old news.
A child with a bad experience just two years in a row before eighth grade will never attain the grade level proficiency he or she might have otherwise.
You may be a fine teacher and able to work with and modify material for all comers, perhaps even better than a canned slate of tasks and lessons.
But we have to safeguard the experiences of many, many children who are not lucky enough to have *you* and have long-term subs, brand new teachers, out of field teachers, DROP teachers padding out a pension (but out of touch...)
The time is too precious to waste, and we can't allow poor performers in the classroom to put a student's academic progress at risk.
Good luck.

Posted by: FloridaChick | December 9, 2010 7:01 PM | Report abuse

But what is the end game here?

Will all these teachers actually retire or leave the profession...

...or will they flinch at the last moment, due to the recession or their love of the classroom, and simply become legions of working poor?

If it's the former, who on earth will replace them? What will schools and districts and states do in the event of a mass exodus?

Will they suddenly sweeten the pot to make teaching attractive again? Will all the dictated, mandated and scripted initiatives fall away in some new "teacher-centered" wave of reform?

Or will technology replace teachers, with students forced to check in at computer terminals for PC-based instruction?

Or will we actually find our society even more sharply divided into the "haves" and "have-nots" as the wealthy get their children educated (without standardized tests and with individualization) at pricey private and charter schools while others make do with little... or nothing... maybe nothing at all...

The Chinese were right... it's a curse to live in interesting times.

Posted by: 1teacher1 | December 9, 2010 7:37 PM | Report abuse

My niece went into teaching 2 years ago at a rural area in the South. Everyone loved her, and she loved her job. Even though I had warned her (and I didn't want to "have to warn her"), she plowed ahead. Six months into the year, she's ready to quit. Administrators that burden her with meetings, paperwork ... parents that blame her because their kid isn't passing the class (even though the kid is 3 years behind in reading). It's sad. I didn't want to have to say, "I told you so", and I haven't yet. But she knows.

At my former HS, which is a "turnaround" school, 10 teachers have resigned. One was in charge of in-school suspension, but resigned when his professional development plan called for basing his evaluation on the test scores of the students who pass through his class. Insane. Another was a well-liked (by the "expert admins") young teacher who volunteered for everything and spent many extra hours at school each day with kids - quit 3 weeks into the year when she realized how the new, young "sheriffs" were treating teachers.

And they want to increase the pool from which to choose.

Posted by: peonteacher | December 9, 2010 8:27 PM | Report abuse

@Florida... I know & agree. But structuring reform measures around the lowest common denominator of teachers seems short sighted unless the motive is to reduce the teaching profession to simple labor. In the long run replacing the best our system has to offer with "teaching in a can" may harm education beyond lowering my job satisfaction.

Posted by: CDuerr | December 9, 2010 9:36 PM | Report abuse

I imagine reformers salivating as they read through these comments, saying "Yes! Yes! Our plan is working! Teachers are becoming disillusioned and are leaving in droves!"

Then they implement whatever plan they have in mind, for instance, short term, poorly paid teachers, who follow a script and sit the kids in front of a computer to learn.

As I've said before, until humans evolve to the point that we no longer crave and need human interaction to thrive, teachers will still be needed - just as much as parents, spouses, friends, co-workers, colleagues and team mates. There are alternatives to human interaction, but there is no substitute for it.

Posted by: efavorite | December 9, 2010 11:04 PM | Report abuse

NO ONE would tell me how to run my classroom. NO ONE. They wouldn't want to have to face the consequences.

Posted by: phoss1 | December 10, 2010 7:19 AM | Report abuse

phoss1:

I'm curious as hell! What would the consequences be?

Posted by: 1teacher1 | December 10, 2010 9:38 AM | Report abuse

NO ONE would tell me how to run my classroom. NO ONE. They wouldn't want to have to face the consequences.

Posted by: phoss1
_______________________________
Sadly Phoss1, in today's world of reform, you would be the one facing the consequences. According to the current class of reformers, you would be branded as someone who is dead weight and waiting to retire while fighting to maintain the status quo. Of course these judgments would not be true, but that is what experienced teachers are facing these days. We are given curriculum that is not age appropriate and sometimes flies in the face of what research shows to be effective teaching and if we don't implement that curriculum according to the exact time line we are given, then we are considered ineffective. Teaching is no longer considered an art where someone can design creative lessons to engage students of different ability levels. It is about having someone in front of the classroom reading a script and students bubbling in answers on a test. Those of us who have watched educational fads come and go over the years often push back and this is not greeted favorably by administrators. It is viewed as being "resistant to change" which typically isn't the case. Many of us simply have the experience to recognize what will succeed and what will fail in our classrooms. Unfortunately we are no longer being given the freedom to use our experience to determine such things. This is why tenure is under attack. Without tenure, we won't be able to speak up as we would be considered insubordinate and fired. Nowadays it's about compliance--pure and simple!

Posted by: musiclady | December 10, 2010 10:49 AM | Report abuse

Dear 1Teacher1: "Or will technology replace teachers, with students forced to check in at computer terminals for PC-based instruction?"

And Florida Chick: "Uniform curricular standards exist to help teacher-proof the material from bad teachers." Canard- admins can always get rid of poor teachers. They just don't do it. It requires accumulating data through evaluations to show that the teacher is, in fact, a poor performer.

Add the Washington Post (that would be Kaplan - for profit) editorials complaining about local (and very highly ranked & respected school systems)teachers' salaries and benefits.

Now are you starting to see the direction this is going? The biggest item in school budgets is labor. If you don't need any carbon based units (people) with skill or talent and/ or you can pass off as much as possible to silicon based units (computers)- you can make much, much, much more money. Gates, Kaplan - are for profit entities.

Posted by: eduk81 | December 10, 2010 12:05 PM | Report abuse

My best advice: Stop taking it. Get together with your colleagues and speak out in your local media, at School Board meetings, and to your friends and neighbors. You can be frogs in the pot of warm water, or you can hop out now and sound the alarm before the water boils! (It is getting close!)

Posted by: rvaliant | December 10, 2010 1:21 PM | Report abuse

One of the things people don't get is the status quo is the standards/bubble-in test mania. We have been at this for more than a decade nationally and upwards of 20 years in some places. They are right when they say the status quo is not working. Why would we want to keep doing it harder. It doesn't work and never will. Would someone please take a look at what brain research and learning theory tells us and change our direction?

Posted by: rvaliant | December 10, 2010 1:38 PM | Report abuse

yes, rvalient - you are right about the status quo - pass it on, loud and clear and as much as you can.

Posted by: efavorite | December 10, 2010 9:06 PM | Report abuse

The queen of mean, Michelle Rhee is on the cover of Newsweek. I tried to post there but I believe they have me blocked.

http://education.newsweek.com/blogs/crib-sheet/2010/12/06/why-michelle-rhee-isn-t-finished-with-school-reform.html

Posted by: educationlover54 | December 11, 2010 4:34 PM | Report abuse

I heard on the news that in Atlanta some school administrators changed the answers on the tests so that their schools would look better. So, what are they teaching children? Cheating is okay? That is NOT helping our children learn.

There is no discipline in or out of school. Too many parents are apathetic at best. The teachers are beset by administrators who want good scores and parents that think their little child is without flaw or fault but it's always the teacher's fault little Johnny or Suzy can't read, write, or calculate.

I have even overheard a parent say that her son didn't have to learn to spell or do math because computers do all that!

My husband grew up during the Great Depression. He went to a one-room school house. His teacher was strict but fair.
The children learned or failed the grade and had to repeat. Parents ensured that children behaved in and outside of class. Homework was done even though the children had farm work to do. Teachers had to teach; children had to learn; parents had to install values and a work ethic in their children.

Personal responsibility! What a concept!

Posted by: abbydelabbey | December 11, 2010 4:46 PM | Report abuse

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