The very first blog I wrote for Education Week was devoted to teacher morale (“Teachers Are Potted Palms in School Reform,” Feb. 16, 2010). I explained why low morale was responsible in large part for teachers leaving the classroom. Since then, the situation has gotten worse. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, eight percent of public school teachers during the 2011-12 school year left the profession the next year (“Just Paying Teachers More Won’t Stop Them From Quitting,” The Atlantic, Aug. 11).
There are 3.2 million public school teachers in this country. Eight percent is not a trivial number. But in addition to the cost of finding replacements, I believe that the turnover is indicative of something more ominous: the deteriorating state of the profession. Studies have shown time and again that the most important in-school factor in learning is the quality of classroom teachers. I don’t believe we can ever recruit and retain the best and brightest college graduates if we don’t first stop denying that a systemic problem exists.
It’s not enough to increase salaries. Exit surveys consistently find they are not the No. 1 reason that teachers quit. Despite occasional tributes, it’s the demonization (“Why We Love Teachers,” Parade, Aug. 14). Teachers are not mercenaries, but neither are they missionaries. When all they hear is how they are solely to blame for the failure of their students to learn, they begin to question staying in the classroom. Burnout is far more prevalent than is known. I seriously doubt that more money will improve their psychological state.
The military has long taken great pains to keep morale high. Top ranking officers know that nothing is more important. Remember how Bob Hope and his troupe used to put on shows around the globe for troops? But in education, morale is rarely considered. The result is seen in the departure of so many young teachers from the profession. Many take lower paying jobs in the private sector, disproving the assertion that salaries are the reason they leave.
When I began teaching in 1964 in the Los Angeles Unified School District, it was a totally different era. I liked having July off, but I couldn’t wait for school to begin in the fall. Salaries then were a pittance compared to what teachers in the district earn today. But I viewed teaching as fun. That’s all that mattered to me. When teachers in the district went on strike for more autonomy (and higher salaries), however, things slowly began to change. The public was appalled that teachers were no longer willing to be treated as tall children. We were seen as abandoning our duty by striking.
It wasn’t too long thereafter that the accountability movement began. (I know that correlation is not causation, but it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.) The rationale was that public schools needed to provide evidence that students were being well educated in order for them to compete in the new global economy. But I think another reason was the belief that teachers had gone too far by making demands through their unions and then going on strike. I foresee further pressure on teachers along the same line, as anger and frustration over the glacial pace of student performance increases.
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.