Teaching Profession Opinion

The Beatings Will Continue Until Teacher Morale Improves

By Walt Gardner — February 22, 2010 2 min read
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It’s easy to understand taxpayer frustration when the pace of school improvement has admittedly been glacial. Patience has its limits, even among supporters of public education. But blaming teachers alone, in the belief that they are overwhelmingly responsible, is counterproductive.

To understand why, it’s important to remember that educating the young is a partnership between parents and teachers. While it’s impossible to ascribe an exact percentage to each, it’s common sense that teachers are not miracle workers. No matter how dedicated and talented, they cannot do the job by themselves.

This is particularly the case in schools in the inner cities and rural areas of the country, where poor students bring huge deficits in socialization, motivation and intellectual development to class through no fault of their own. Many readers will be quick to point out that this explanation seeks to make excuses. They cite the examples of schools that seemingly have been successful with these students. These are commonly referred to as high-flying schools.

If they can do the job, then why can’t all schools do the same? It’s a fair question that warrants an answer. Consider the following: There are 98,000 public schools in the U.S. containing 50 million students who are taught by 3.2 million teachers. Of these,15,000 schools are considered to be high-poverty. The number of schools cited as examples of what can be achieved when teachers are highly qualified and totally dedicated is miniscule.

There’s a reason for this. Teachers in these high-flying schools work schedules that set the stage for eventual exhaustion. While they may be able to maintain the pace in the short run, the odds are against their being able to do so in the long run. If this observation is accurate, then trying to apply the same model to the 15,000 schools in dire need is unrealistic. In other words, the high flying model is neither scalable nor sustainable.

This conclusion certainly does not mean that teachers cannot do more. It does mean, however, they cannot do that much more to eliminate the highly publicized academic achievement gap. And this is why constant criticism hurts students in the end. When teachers hear nothing but accusations about their work, their morale suffers, which in turn affects their performance in the classroom.

The extent of the damage is reflected in the high turnover rate among teachers. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, half quit within the first five years. The reasons for this attrition and the effect on students will be the subject of my next post.

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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.