Sad Change

Sad Change September 23, 2012

Bill Maxwell tells his story of formerly encouraging people to become public school teachers, but he can no longer do that:

Are you seeing this? Why do you think it is the case that teachers are leaving?

Back then, while recalling my public school teachers and having recently completed two transformative years at the University of Chicago in graduate school, I would passionately encourage my brightest students to become teachers. Many followed my advice….

Why, you ask, would I want to become a teacher under these ugly conditions? Why? Teaching is our most important profession. It is a calling, and excellent teachers are some of our greatest heroes. That’s why.

I dropped this spiel more than a decade ago.

Now I wouldn’t try to encourage a student to become a public school teacher in this toxic environment. Even a lot of people who don’t hold teachers in contempt easily speak the popular rhetoric of disrespect.

With perhaps the exception of anti-intellectual Australia, the United States is virtually alone in the world in being profoundly contemptuous of its schoolteachers. The negative results — vengeful layoffs and firings, increased class loads, evaluations based on unreliable standardized tests, and the hurry-up establishment of charter schools and vouchers — are damaging the profession beyond repair.

After analyzing federal surveys of attrition rates in schools nationwide, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, the U.S. Department of Education and Teach Plus, a nonprofit organization, found that teachers are leaving the profession in droves. Nearly half of those entering the field to replace retiring baby boomers leave within five years. The joint analysis shows that teachers with only one year in the classroom constitute the largest single group of teachers.

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  • AndyM

    from an australian, which apparently makes me anti-intellectual (and which may inform my attitude towards teachers):
    teaching is a fantastic profession in terms of shaping the next generation of citizens. No doubt about that, but teachers seem to be one of the few professions that are highly unionised and where incompetence is hard to root out (we would all recall teachers from school who could not teach but still retained their positions).

    Teaching is also the bastion of liberal social engineering. all the wacky ideas that get put forward at university and most professions have the good sense to just leave them there, teachers take them into the classroom.

    Perhaps teachers would be held in higher esteem if they behaved in a more professional manner. weren’t seen to be relishing their many and long holidays (moderately long hours during term notwithstanding), if a model was found to identify and help teachers who weren’t as good as they could be to improve their performance (maybe not standardised testing, but for goodness sake if we can land robots on mars, surely we can find a way of identifying poor performing teachers and raise the bar), and maybe if teaching was more about education than trying to be a social worker to a class of kids….

    That being said, the standard of public schools near my home is that poor that there is no way i’d send my kids there.

  • this is off-topic, but related, I think – It’s interesting to me that the young teachers getting into the field to replace boomers who are retiring only last a max of 5 years… seems to me that there is a relating trend among young pastors? So – this begs the question – can I ethically encourage a young person to pursue pastoral ministry as a vocation?

  • Robin

    I only have three things to offer here.

    1. Teaching is a calling. I tried it for a year and it was definitely not a good fit. I would rather dig ditches than teach in public schools, so my heart goes out to people who see that as the vocation they are called to.

    2. The teachers I know personally do not have a good view of the education system and are looking to get out. The politics that occur inside the walls of the school system tend to make them sick.

    3. I heard a statistic during the Chicago teacher’s strike that 30% or 40% of Chicago public school teachers sent their children to private schools. If true, that is a damning statistic.

  • Larry Prater

    In response to AndyM:

    I am given to assume that you are Australian and/or live in Australia. Thus, I am going to be kindly in this response. However, as a retired educator who labored over thirty years in Texas public high schools and colleges, I cannot restrain myself from responding to your charges.

    If American schools are “highly unionized” (how is one highly in a union?), then Texas must not be in America. As a right-to-work state, teachers may join unions but have no bargaining power. If teachers were to strike in Texas, then they would simply be replaced. Moreover, if “incompetence is hard to root out,” then it is more the ineptitude of administrators and the rising complete lack of involvement on the part of parents in their children’s educations. I think, though, that the incompetent teacher trope is massively overdone by critics of public education. I would hazard to guess that the number of incompetent teachers probably doesn’t exceed the number of incompetent doctors, lawyers, name any other profession. As well, an horrifically incompetent teacher is typically not rehired (in Texas, the major of school districts hire teachers on year-to-year contracts), whereas an incompetent doctor or lawyer can often continue business as usual with the smallest of penalties from professional organizations.

    Your second point — “wacky social engineering” — is a lazy, generalized canard that is constantly bandied about by those who seek to not just criticize public education but to end it entirely in America. In my years working in two public high schools in Texas, in a university, and in a community college, I found that conservative-minded teachers (and administrators) equalled or outnumbered more the liberal-minded. True, my experience is confined to Deep South Texas, but I never had either my conservative viewpoint or Christian values challenged or belittled in the workplace.

    And, as for “relishing . . . many and long holidays,” well, I only wish I could have been “relishing” them instead of working a summer or Christmas holiday job or teaching summer school or attending continuing education and graduate school classes. In fact, for all but the last few years of my teaching career, I either worked a second job (usually nights and weekends) or attended university (nights and summers). Believe me, sir, I did not usually relish that. You are right that efforts, across the nation, should be made to improve classroom performance of the teachers so that students will improve in their performances. Those efforts are often lacking. I believe, though, that the drive to standardized testing has rendered improved teaching techniques a somewhat moot point. The point of education has increasingly been to “teach to the test” — the students’ scores on these tests determine the futures of the students, teachers, administrators, school board trustees, and communities served by those schools. The stakes of standardized tests are much too high. Finally, teachers do often seem like social workers because that is what parents (and the general public) seem to really want them to be. The amazing decline of parental involvement (at least in any positive way) over the past thirty or forty years has created several generations of children whose problems outside the classroom overshadow the ability of those children to learn. I don’t have an answer or answers for the social and cultural changes in America that have resulted in so many young people with emotional, social, economic, and physical problems which impinged upon their learning. Teachers in public school spend much more time with children than many of the children’s parents do. By default, the teacher becomes a de facto guardian/parent for some kids.

    I usually do not rebut attacks on public education. They are far too many, usually far too generalized and biased, and likely those making those attacks are unlikely to be dissuaded from continuing those attacks. I was and am a passionate supporter and defender of public education. America’s greatness is, in large part, because of the nation’s commitment to the common school, to the concept of providing a quality public education to all children. To see Americans, most of whom benefitted from public education, attack and even call for the demise of public schools is tragic.

  • PJ Anderson

    Our entire educational system in the US is failing. From pre-K through undergrad and even into doctoral we’re simply not educating anyone effectively. Sure we’re granting degrees at a higher level than ever before, but they are empty pieces of paper.

    I’m only advocating non-traditional forms of education now.

  • Percival

    I think people know it’s not the teachers. Its the system, the culture, the unions, the atmosphere. Something! But people know that good teachers are handicapped, poor ones retained, new ones are cannon fodder, old ones are survivors, etc. So I don’t see standardized tests, charter schools, and vouchers as directed at teachers, but at the system which drags everyone down.

  • Valerie

    My daughter has taught first grade for 6 years. She works from 7 AM till 7 PM Monday thru Friday. She often works in her classroom on Sunday afternoons. She takes approximately 3 weeks off in the summer, then must attend workshops before readying her class materials for the coming school year. And this work schedule is common for teachers. Yes, we all know some lazy teachers who shouldn’t have made the career choice they did. But my daughter and many like her have felt a true calling to teach, and are gifted to do so. However, each year she has more children with developmental and emotional problems. ADHD is very common, but the least of problems teachers face now. Added to the classroom mix are children with varying degrees of autism, children with depression, children who must be taught how to bathe, children with a history of violence. Almost every child comes from a broken home, some of them come from severely malfunctioning families. Many children are simply trying to survive, never mind learn. And yet federal and state guidelines require teachers to not only treat and deal with all developmental problems, but to teach children an ever-increasing curriculum. Parents are uncooperative at best, hostile many times and unheeding of their children’s problems. At this, the beginning of her seventh year of teaching, my daughter is seriously considering changing careers. Not because she doesn’t still love teaching, but she simply feels she must leave this environment to protect her sanity and health. We are asking our teachers to be psychologist, mother, nurse, counselor, advocate, violence interventionist, and oh, by the way, produce those near perfect standardized test scores or be seen as failure. Yes, our schools and teachers need help, but it must start with rebuilding our families.

  • Scott Gay

    I’m a survivor of 35 years. It’s a mess. It is being part of a culture that is spiralling downward, and if you stick yourself out to slow the descent all you get is broken. Not trying to push the analogy too far, but it corresponds to living in the USA.
    I have lost faith in church goers sending their kids to public school being the answer( see the Tony Jones’ blog on homeschooling). I place more faith in responsible adults seeing the realities of the moral psychology research( see Jonathan Haidt- a secularist) and implementing the needed balance. I sincerely believe we have pushed for and received a liberal foundation, and it is sorely in need of replacement. Our slide into degradation, disrespect, and betrayal can be given thousands of references. It is also certain that not caring or being fair have grave consequences, BUT we are an experiment in regard to focusing on them alone having tremendously deliterious effects.

  • Patrick

    My daughter was talked out of teaching by my cousin. His view was parents are destroying the ability of teachers to teach in an atmosphere with some stability. They blame everything on the teacher/school and the child is always an innocent victim.

  • L. Lee

    I want to respond to a point made by Larry Prater. I have listened to a principal describe how one of the hardest things he ever did was to get rid of an incompetent teacher. This was in a southern state that did not have an extremely strong union. It is common knowledge that the firing of incompetent teachers (if they are tenured) is difficult. Perhaps some of the readers will recall a John Stossel special where he produced a massive flow chart showing all the steps that have to be gone through to fire a teacher in the New York City system (not that I endorse all things Stossel). All this said, I think incompetent teachers are just one problem (and not the main problems) plaguing public education.

  • I read a book called “the life and death of the public school system”. Full of interesting stuff. Lots of boring stats but if the topic interests u it is worth the read.

    Diane Ravitch is the author.

  • T

    At law school (back in the late nineties) I was struck by how many former teachers were there with me. Great folks. There were so many former teachers there I felt compelled to ask each of them why they got out of teaching. Almost all of them cited that they felt powerless to do what needed doing. Whether it was the policies and procedures that tied their hands and the hands of the principals, or the inability to fix horrible home situations or get parents to help their kids in fundamental ways, or even the inability to discipline kids that needed it–the bottom line was that the (former) teachers felt tied at evey turn.

    I do think we need fundamental reform of how we do education in this country. I’m with Ron Sider on this one. This election cycle, words like “socialism” and “communism” get used ignorantly and inappropriately way too often. That said, lower-level education (much more than Obama-care) is the only significant industry that we run like socialists. We would do better to do the classicly American thing and have our governments heavily subsidize education rather than actually own and operate schools as government bureaucracies. I don’t know if teachers realize how much more freedom they and school adminstrators would have if they weren’t state actors.

  • MatthewS

    My dad was a public high school teacher for about 10 years (back when there was such a thing as an Industrial Arts teacher). Problems with the school administration took the joy out of it for him (including: the administration would literally flush evidence of any drug problems down the toilet; they would go around the teachers to give athletes marked-up grades so the athletes could continue in the sports program). He put a great deal of his money into building up the shop into something special.

    I have known a number of public school teachers who flat-out give their hearts away to their kids. I remember one man who would talk with tears in his eyes about how much joy the students had given him and how much he cared about them. He would name student after student and talk about their stories, long after he retired, until the time he died. He carried them in his heart.

    There will be a funeral this week for a man who coached and taught shop (among other things) at the local high school for many years. The weight of what he invested into the lives of so many students is beyond measure.

    To borrow a phrase, such people truly deserve “double honor.”

  • AndyM

    @Larry: It’s entirely possible that the systems are that different between the USA and Australia that comparisons aren’t helpful. From your description it would appear teachers have a harder time of it in the USA than here in australia.

    As a highly unionised profession, here in australia most teachers are members of the union, and if the union goes out on strike, the schools close.
    All the teachers I know do relish their holidays, and none that i know of have second jobs. they might spend half a day or so in at school during the holidays, but most of it is spent camping or at the beach.

    “social engineering” might have been unduly hash of me to use as a phrase. What annoys me as a “for instance” is that reading methods have been changed flowing out of academic preferences. Literacy has suffered, but nobody dares lose face by going back to the “old fashioned” way. in other disciplines, if a change results in negative outcomes, you roll it back quickly, but that isn’t the way in the schools i’m observing.

    One thing I’m in full agreement (and it seems like the problem is the same) is parental disengagement. I really wonder why some people bother to have kids if they aren’t going to parent them. It isn’t the teacher’s job to be a parent or a social worker. those sorts of things should be sorted so that the teacher can get on with the primary role of instruction.