Education Opinion

Finding Your Kwan: One Remedy for Teacher Attrition

By Coleen Armstrong — November 18, 2009 5 min read
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School had just been dismissed for the day. I left my seventh-period cafeteria study hall and headed back toward my classroom to fetch the books and papers I’d be carting home that evening.

As I walked through the open doorway of my room, there sat the first-year teacher whose sophomore English had exited moments earlier. She was sitting at my desk, sorting through her own stack of essays. I nodded, smiled, and then asked, “How’s it going?”


Startled, I pulled a front row seat two feet forward and sank into it. “Tell me.”

She sighed. “No matter what I do, I can’t seem to spark my students. I’m finding nothing enjoyable or rewarding about this job—and the workload is killing me! I’ve made a decision: I’m getting out before I waste any more time.”

She’d be turning in her resignation letter the following week, she added, effective at the end of the term in January. This was late November.

“Are you certain you’ve thought it through?” I ventured. “Isn’t there any chance of turning things around?”

“None. My mind is made up.”

And it was. She would last, it turned out, barely another month. She left at the beginning of December’s winter break.

Enduring Frustrations

In the ten years since this episode took place, I’ve thought often of this young woman, particularly each time I’ve encountered others now in business and industry who, as they put it, “used to be” teachers. They never elaborate, but I think I can piece together their all-too-common stories. They left the profession because they felt overworked, underpaid, used up, and spit out.

We’re all familiar with the jarring statistics indicating that about half of new hires resign within their first five years—a figure that (surprise!) has been a constant for decades. One could safely assume that the current economic crisis dictates slightly improved retention rates, but that doesn’t address teachers’ enduring frustrations with what the National Education Association calls “poor working conditions.”

The massive “poor working conditions” umbrella can bundle many diverse challenges, ranging from furnaces that malfunction in freezing weather to inadequate textbooks to oversized classes to endless after-school meetings. Few of these can be remedied by individual teachers or even administrators. They require no less than a total restructuring of our educational system, along with a serious infusion of cash. In short, this falls into the not-in-our-lifetime category.

But with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, I believe that bad placement and bad scheduling—the leading culprits for why young teachers give up and go elsewhere—can and should be addressed.

About placement—I began my career teaching 9th grade English, and I loved it. As the years wore on, however, I was fortunate to be offered periodic grade-level switches and was also farsighted enough to accept them. But one year I was given a random class of 7th graders. Although they were sweet, if a bit squirrely, I was very aware that my true niche lay elsewhere—with juniors and seniors. Luckily, during my last decade in the classroom, that’s where I was able to remain.

But how many faculty dropouts, I now wonder, could be turned around if those teachers were given, as football star Rod Tidwell describes in the movie Jerry Maguire, the chance to find their “Kwan”—their true blissful calling in the classroom?

About scheduling—it’s no coincidence that the young woman who resigned within mere months of taking her classroom job was traveling from room to room every single period. No one can possibly dismiss the added stress this dumps into a teacher’s lap. I should know. I traveled 16 of my 31 years.

How many potential dropouts, I wonder, might also be turned around by making the traveling experience—when required—a bit less hideous?

‘Cheap and Simple Fixes’

“The most amazing thing about cheap and simple fixes is they often address problems that seem impervious to any solution,” say co-authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner in their book, Super Freakonomics. Where the stress of these twin teaching horrors—not finding an instructional fit and having to travel—is concerned, something can indeed be done. It can take place quickly, and it needn’t be costly.

First, each new teacher who feels endangered should be strongly encouraged to take a couple of professional days in the classrooms of veteran educators. The new teacher should be allowed to observe these dedicated vets who are still energized by what they do, but are assigned a different grade level or subject area from that novice teacher’s field. Perhaps these young ones will find—as I found when faced with teaching my 7th graders—that they’re not ideally suited to teaching, say, sophomore biology. But whoa! Introducing 6th graders to science projects blows these teachers’ minds. Perhaps they’ll discover that 9th grade algebra seems a bit banal. But holy cow! Once they’ve visited a senior calculus class, they might experience the majesty of teaching higher mathematics.

Can the grade or ability level of students make such a huge difference when it comes to job satisfaction? Yes, absolutely. Having taught all five secondary grades, I can swear that working with different specializations can be like living on multiple planets—most of them congenial, with a few almost uninhabitable. That’s a perception, by the way, which varies from teacher to teacher. We might assume that everyone will try to lay claim to the college-bound. But no, I, like many others, found my Kwan teaching at-risk students.

A great fringe benefit of these professional-day visits may be the forging of a friendship with a passionate veteran. Having a late afternoon discussion about in-the-trenches concerns can go far beyond those ed school field observations. Young teachers may find to their relief that elders, who’ve weathered equally difficult assignments and killer schedules, can offer survival tips, along with reassurances that nothing, not even being forced to use your car as an office, lasts forever. We teachers are a patient, optimistic lot. It’s only the fear that things will never get better that discourages us.

Second, perhaps no teacher, let alone a freshly minted one, should be forced to accept the traveling gig for more than two consecutive years. When it’s necessary, one corner of one room should be designated as home base for storage and (please, oh, please!) an additional teacher’s desk. Also, distances between classrooms should be minimal—if possible, within the same wing. I witnessed several examples over the years of teachers (including myself) playing demented versions of musical chairs, when a bit more tweaking of the master chart would have resulted in less frenzied darting from place to place.

Will these moves prevent all fresh hires from leaving? Will they address our current testing mania or one copy machine serving 75 staff members? Of course not. But for now, perhaps we’d be grateful to see a mere 10 to 20 percent reduction in the new-teacher exodus, particularly when a workable remedy might really be just this simple.


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