Scripted lessons, an oppressive testing culture, and a punitive evaluation system are the main reasons teachers are heading for the exits, according to analyses of their resignation letters. Now a new study examines how the letters have risen into the realm of social action.
“The reasons teachers are leaving the profession have little to do with the reasons most frequently touted by education reformers, such as pay or student behavior,” said Alyssa Hadley Dunn, a co-author of the new study on “I Quit” letters and assistant professor of urban teacher education at Michigan State University. “Rather, teachers are leaving largely because oppressive policies and practices are affecting their working conditions and beliefs about themselves and education.”
The authors of “With Regret: The Genre of Teachers’ Public Resignation Letters” set out to understand how teachers’ writing aims to make a difference in an an education system they view as broken. The study analyzes 22 letters written by educators from 13 states between 2012 and 2014, and with experience ranging from one year to 40 years. What emerges is a veritable style of writing expressing disillusionment with the teaching profession and the aims of the education system. (You can also read Education Week Teacher blogger Walt Gardner’s assessment of why teachers quit here. Gardner taught for 28 years in Los Angeles and was a lecturer in the UCLA Graduate School of Education. And here is a first-person account of why a teacher in her sixth year has decided to leave the profession.)
In the past five years, U.S. teachers have increasingly shared their resignation letters online—in blogs, on Facebook, Youtube, and on local and national news sites—where the missives have gone viral. These letters come from novice and veteran teachers of all subjects and grade levels, in urban and suburban settings all across the country. Linking these letters is the view that education in the United States is headed in the wrong direction, and that the best course of action is to leave the classroom and let the public know why.
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Teachers often write of feeling complicit in a broken system, and that leaving was a way of taking a stand. One teacher writes: “I quit because I’m tired of being a part of the problem. It’s killing me and it’s not doing anyone else any good.”
That sentiment informs the central component of the teacher resignation letter: a description of what’s wrong with U.S. education today. Gerald J. Conti, a social studies department leader in the Westhill Central School District in Syracuse, N.Y., offers a case study. The 40-year veteran cites many reasons for his exit, not the least of which is what he sees as an overreliance on “data-driven education” that “seeks only conformity, standardization, testing, and a zombie-like adherence to the shallow and generic Common Core . . . .”
Like the other letter writers, Conti expresses feelings of abandonment by a profession which, as he says, no longer trusts teachers to create their own quizzes, and then eats away at their planning time by making them prepare lessons and other materials for review. “After all of this, I realize that I am not leaving my profession; in truth, it has left me,” he writes. “It no longer exists.”
Still others express defiance. One teacher writes: “I am quitting without remorse and without second thoughts. I quit. I quit. I quit!” His reason: He feels the profession forces him to preside over a barrage of tests “for the sake of profit.”
The study’s authors conclude that resignation letters provide teachers with a platform for questioning the policies that shape education, while also educating the public about its problems. Taken as a whole, the “I Quit” letters describe the state of U.S. education, build empathy for teachers who work in the system, and provide a call to action to fix what is wrong in public education.
For an alternative view of the “I Quit” letter phenomenon, check out Justin Minkel, who says these “gloomy tales of departure” deserve a response from career educators who find the teaching profession worthy of a lifetime of dedication. Minkel is a 2nd and 3rd grade teacher in Arkansas who frequently writes for Education Week Teacher.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.