Careers That Last–Ways to Save the Teaching Profession

I love ASCD (formerly known as the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development). Their monthly publication Educational Leadership has always been good, but in the past 3-4 yours, it has been outstanding. Right on target; up-to-date and even ahead of the curve; well-written; insightful; provocative; readable; nice blend of theory and practice; and most of all–useful to classroom teachers and education leaders.

Check out Katy Farber’s piece, Stop the Exodus, in the May, 2012 issue. Farber suggests three actions that can help retain good teachers. I am all for this idea. I just finished up 39 years in the classroom, first as a 3rd/4th grade teacher (17 years), and then a 6th grade/middle school science teacher (22 years). In my 40th year in education, I served as the president of DSEA, the Delaware State Education Association–what the public thinks of as the teacher union. We actually represent all certificated employees, as well as all other employee groups involved in public education: para-educators, food service workers, secretaries and clerks, custodians, bus drivers, etc. We do not represent administrators. I am just completing the first year of a three-year term in office.

At times during my teaching career, I had little or no choice but to stay and teach. I stayed because I liked teaching, I was good at the job, and I found my role in the classroom, school, and community to be most satisfying. At other points, I actually considered law school, school administration, or some other yet-to-be-discovered employment. I was not really looking to get out of teaching–just trying to consider my options. I quickly figured out that I did not want to go into school administration. It was the kids and the act of teaching that held my interest.

Farber’s recommendations are simple and understandable.

Three Ways to Retain Teachers

1. Make sure new teachers are prepared for test days and other potentially stressful events.                                                                                                                         2. Cultivate humanity.                                                                                                             3. Provide opportunities for leadership.

#1 seems like the simplest action to undertake. It certainly makes sense. Since 1972, I have administered decades of annual and semi-annual standardized tests. Some sessions came with preparation, advice, and a review of the important details. Others came with a DIY approach: Here’s the guide–the test starts tomorrow. I used to think of myself as a seasoned and capable test administrator. However, our new state test was designed to be administered and taken on computers. Lots of new procedures; lots of navigational details; lots of technological issues. Lots of ways to screw up. My nerves were shot from Day I. So, I completely understand and sympathize with the new teacher who may feel completely out of his/her element on test day.

During one year of state testing–at the time we still used pencil-and-paper tests–our entire district was informed that the test administrator was not permitted to sit down during the testing period. This amounted to not being able to sit for a 2-3 hour session; having to walk around and around the classroom in order to constantly monitor student progress; hovering over as few as 20-25 children in an elementary classroom. It was crazy. It was uncomfortable. It was boring. It was creepy–the kids started to find it distracting. I was the local union president at the time. I got frantic e-mails asking if I could please do something. I contacted the powers that be, and by the next day, the directive had been revised. The difference between sitting in one’s office dreaming up ideas and actually thinking through how those ideas might play out–continuous monitoring is one thing; obsessive oversight is quite another.

Farber’s comment, “Similar advice could apply to other days that depart from the usual daily routine. New teachers may not be aware of logistical issues related to field trips, assemblies, classroom observations, fire drills, and other events,” is so true. New teachers and teachers new to the building need to be properly and thoroughly oriented to routines and procedures. It is not fair or humane to leave them adrift, to expect them to imagine the right questions in time to keep themselves informed, or to assume that other staff will repeatedly perceive that the newbie may need additional information. Besides, even as a veteran teacher, I recall plenty of times when I felt at sea when the unexpected occurred.

One of a teacher’s worst nightmares? THE NEWS THAT THE COPIER IS DOWN. AGAIN.

#2 is gonna be tough. Humanity and bureaucracy are known to conflict.

I appreciate Farber’s bulleted suggestions. However, I think that there is a potential lack of balance in provisions made for employees with children and families and those without. A family-friendly workplace is one thing; one that consistently relies on the goodness and generosity of those without children or spouses is UNFAIR and lacking humanity. Work time and down time is just as precious to Miss McGillacuddy and her cat, Buster, as it is to Mr. and Mrs. Smith and the boys. Something to keep in mind.

As for being considerate to new mothers, I completely agree. I have had to stand up in several instances for a new mother’s right to pump breast milk during the work day–the right to both appropriate times and locations. Jeez. How hard is it to understand that pumping during one’s 9:00 a.m. planning period is not going to work when one is gone from home between 6:30 and 3:30. Or, trying to pump and eat lunch during a 20-minute lunch period? (It’s a “guaranteed” 30-minute duty-free lunch, but heck, it’s in an elementary school. and elementary teachers NEVER get a 30-minute lunch.) Or, insisting that the new mom pump in the bathroom. Yuck. No chair. No table or counter. Not to mention: It is a bathroom. Pumping requires sterility. It’s baby food, for god’s sake.

I hear stories all the time now about teachers with 180 or 200 or 225 students. Teachers with multiple preps. Teachers who travel between schools where the schedules have not been reviewed and properly co-ordinated. These are the kinds of things we refer to as working conditions. And, these are the very things that drive teachers out of the profession.

BTW: These are also the kinds of things that drive out veteran teachers–a phenomenon I call forced retirement. I know of too many OUTSTANDING teacher colleagues who have decided that instead of teaching for five or even ten more years, they would leave now because they could not stand this kind of ill-considered abuse any longer. What a shame. What a loss.

#3 is doable, but would take an extraordinary building administrator and a creative, open-minded, forward-thinking superintendent. There are very few instances in my 40-year experience of the fostering of genuine teacher leadership. There are plenty of teachers who for whatever reason would not want to take a leadership role. There are enough others who would both relish and excel in the role of school or district leadership.

I have experienced situations of faux-leadership–advisory committees, team leaders, department chairs, curriculum councils, Race-to-the-Top planning committees, for example. Roles in which the teaching participants were leaders in name only.

District and school administrators rarely present an issue or a problem and ask the teachers/educators to suggest remedies or options. Why not? I would guess because just like “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”, being the boss can mean never having to ask for ideas or feedback. Seems like a very strange way to handle leadership, but who am I to question? As a state president, many final decisions are left to me; but I never hesitate to ask for help, opinions, or ideas. Heck, isn’t that why we have a staff?

Farber’s suggestions are valid and worth our attention. A career that lasts is an admirable goal for an individual, a system, and a profession. Farber concludes: ” These are just a few ways schools can begin the work of making teaching a sustainable career. Other school improvement efforts that don’t consider the basic work of improving school communities may well fail if the best teachers continue to leave.

All those who seek to reform education must make it a priority to retain, inspire, and empower excellent teachers. Together, we can all work to make schools more fulfilling, humane, flexible, and creative communities.”

This entry was posted in Accountability, Education Professionals, New Teachers, Quality Teachers/Quality Teaching, School Administrators, School Improvement, Teachers and Teaching, Testing. Bookmark the permalink.

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