Teaching Profession

‘I Am a Fool to Do This Job': Half of Teachers Say They’ve Considered Quitting

Survey shows broad discontent
By Catherine Gewertz — August 05, 2019 5 min read
Teachers, parents, and students picket in downtown Los Angeles in January. Since the beginning of 2018, teachers in several states and big-city districts have gone on strike to fight for higher pay and more education funding.

More than half of the country’s teachers say they’d go on strike for better pay if they had the chance, and half are so unhappy that they’ve seriously considered leaving the profession in the last few years, according to a poll released Monday.

“I work 55 hours a week, have 12 years’ experience, and make $43k,” one teacher told researchers for the PDK survey. “I worry and stress daily about my classroom prep work and kids. I am a fool to do this job.”

For the first time since 2000, PDK included public school teachers in its annual poll of attitudes toward K-12 education, and their voices came through loud and clear: They’re exhausted and resentful. Topping teachers’ list of complaints: low pay and inadequate school funding, issues that ignited a wave of strikes starting last year and boosted public support for their cause.

“We absolutely need to take note of this. Teachers have legitimate grievances. This indicates we’re going to see continued agitation,” said Lawrence Mishel, a labor market economist who studies teacher compensation at the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank supported partially by teachers’ unions.

Of the 556 teachers PDK polled, 55 percent said they’d vote to strike for higher salaries. An even larger share said they’d walk off their jobs to get more money for school programs. More than half would strike to get a bigger say on standards, curriculum, and testing.

They’ve got the public on their side, too. Seven in 10 adults polled said they’d back a teacher strike for higher pay, and nearly 8 in 10 said they’d support a strike to help teachers gain more influence over academic policies.

Parents in the poll resoundingly support teacher strikes, even though they’d be acutely affected by a walkout. In fact, parents expressed more support for teacher strikes than teachers themselves did: More than three-quarters of parents would back a teachers’ strike for higher pay. Parents were even more inclined to support a strike aimed at getting teachers a bigger say in academic matters or more money for school programs. More than 83 percent backed job walkouts for those reasons.

For PDK’s study, a random national sample of 2,389 adults, with an oversampling of parents of school-age children and teachers, took surveys online in April. The organization also conducted extended online discussions with 15 teachers and 15 parents.

A ‘Crisis’ in the Making

Half the teachers in the survey said they’d considered leaving the profession in the last few years, citing two reasons most frequently: compensation and stress.

“I find it really alarming that more than half of teachers say they’ve seriously considered leaving their profession,” said Joan Richardson, the director of the PDK poll. “Imagine if physicians were saying that, or police officers. I regard this as a crisis.”

Teachers were more likely to say they’d considered leaving if they feel their schools are underfunded—which three-quarters of teachers do—or if they think their school’s discipline policies aren’t strict enough. Grade level plays a role, too: High school teachers were more likely than those in lower grades to say they’d considered quitting.

One teacher shared this list of grievances with PDK researchers: “Lack of respect, evaluations that are not in my control based on the behavior of children, pay freezes over five years, low pay carrying over into retirement, unable to pay for living expenses, administrative disrespect for teachers publicly and privately, defiant and belligerent students returned to the classroom after egregious behavior.”

Teachers’ view of their profession is so dim that 55 percent wouldn’t want their children to follow in their footsteps. This parallels the view of the public overall: In the 2018 poll, 54 percent of adults said they wouldn’t want their children becoming teachers, the first time since the PDK poll began in 1969 that a majority responded that way. The reasons they cited? Poor pay and benefits.

Changing Attitudes

Public sympathy for teachers has been rising in recent years. Experts have noticed that they’re increasingly viewed as victims of a broken system, rather than being blamed for schools’ problems.

The PDK poll reflects those shifts: 40 percent of adults polled in 1980 said teachers should be allowed to strike, but by 2013, that figure rose to 52 percent. In the 1980s, the percentage of adults saying teacher salaries were too low hovered between 29 and 37 percent. By 1990, it rose to half, and by 2015, to 58 percent. By 2018, fully two-thirds of adults polled said they thought teachers’ salaries were too low, the largest share to respond that way since PDK began the poll in 1969.

Average teacher pay in all but 11 states decreased between 2010 and 2016, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. A study by the Economic Policy Institute showed that in the last two decades, teachers’ average weekly wages, adjusted for inflation, have decreased, while the wages of other college graduates rose.

Nearly every state has funneled more money into K-12 education in the last few years. And teachers in 15 states got pay raises this year.

But more state funding doesn’t always translate into fatter wallets for teachers. Often, when that money reaches district offices, most of it is spent on other priorities, like paying down pension obligations or hiring new teachers.

With those pay trends, teachers “have a very legitimate grievance,” said Max Eden, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. But he argued that teachers should focus their organizing efforts on school boards rather than on state legislatures. Traditionally, teachers have aimed their protests at local management, but in the last few years, they’ve organized more large-scale actions with state legislatures as their targets.

“A lot of this phenomenon [of teacher strikes] is being misdirected upwards,” Eden said. “They’re marching on state legislatures. But they could be protesting at their school boards, saying, ‘Why have you allocated hundreds of thousands of dollars to tablets, or central office staff?’ That’s the conversation we’re not having.”

Mishel disagreed, noting that in some states where teachers went on strike in 2018 and 2019, it was clear that there had been significant reductions in state funding.

“In many places, local districts were aligned with teachers” in their decisions to walk off the job, Mishel said. “They understood that they both were suffering from cutbacks in state funding.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 21, 2019 edition of Education Week as Most Teachers Say They Would Strike for Better Pay

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