Schooled: An Intimate Look at a National Problem

Between 2009 and 2011, job satisfaction among teachers declined by fifteen points, according to the Metlife Teacher Survey, and now sits at the lowest level in more than two decades.  Only 44% of teachers (less than half!) can say that they are very satisfied with their jobs.  The most common number of years of experience for a U.S. high school teacher as measured in 2008-2007?  One year.

50% of those who begin teaching quit within five years.

This topic is near to my heart.  I am one of the teachers who left.  In 2008, I quit my job teaching high school Biology with the Cramer County School District (name changed to protect the identities of those I worked with).  I did so at the end of a two year career, out of concern for my professional future and my mental state.  As a science teacher, I had the option of going to graduate school and receiving a stipend nearly equal to my teacher’s salary, with an added bonus of a PhD at the end of the journey.  Like countless teachers who are leaving the profession every day, I left for greener pastures.

In his blog Living in Dialogue, veteran educator Anthony Cody comments on Metlife’s survey, noting:

“The school where I taught for 18 years once had eight stable science teachers. I taught whole families of students, whose younger siblings would follow them. Now there is one science teacher there who has lasted more than a decade, and the other science classes are taught by temporary teachers, who come and go, doing their two or three year-long stints.”

I observed similar trends in Cramer county. As of this writing, it is nearly four years since I left CHS.  A quick review of the high school’s staff reveals that of the principal and two assistant principal positions, none are occupied by the people who were there when I left.  17 of 43 teaching positions are occupied by people I recognize.  Cramer high school has experienced a turnover of 100% in administration and about 60% in faculty positions in the last five years.

While I don’t necessarily count myself among them, bright, motivated young teachers are leaving the profession or never entering it to begin with.  This brain drain seems to be affecting schools in need to the greatest extent.  The Metlife survey points out that job satisfaction is lowest in poorly performing schools.

The few remaining motivated veteran teachers like Anthony Cody are trying to hold the line, but many of them are retiring in the near future and there is no one coming in to take up the slack.  In international comparisons, the scores for reading, math, and science performance of United States students are mediocre and stagnating.

How does this happen?  What does a new teacher experience upon entering the school system that drives them to leave it?  And how is it that the system seems to select for dead weight and weed out motivated instructors in particular?

The answer to that question unfolded over two years of my life.  A lot of people who have done it will tell you, “You had to be there,” or “It was the sum of the circumstances.”  The reason they say this is that most teachers’ reasons for leaving are complex, evolving out of the cumulative effect of countless individual experiences.  For many, it is the death of a thousand cuts.  It’s not one story.  It’s many stories.  In Schooled: How the System Breaks Teachers, I invite you to come along for the ride in a first-hand account of the joys and sorrows of a short-lived teaching career.  Through a series of stories about real experiences with students, faculty, and administrators, I provide insight into what is happening to our teachers.

We need to raise awareness and have a national discussion about the state of our education system and what we can do to fix it.

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