Many new teachers in the United States are committed to values that extend beyond expediency, narrow self-interest, and the present moment. These are precisely the kind of people who can help young people learn, not just how to make a living, but how to live and what to live for.New teachers lack mentoring and resources for training and professional development, while teachers are pressured by test-based evaluations, all for a profession that's increasingly devalued and under attack. But these pressures don't just hit new teachers.
But the system almost forces these new teachers toward other occupations.
In Wisconsin, Whitefish Bay High School teacher Christine Kiefer was working on a master's degree and had been teaching math for 10 years when Gov. Scott Walker's infamous Act 10 eliminating collective bargaining for public workers went into effect. She's been forced to abandon both. The master's degree went first, because of funding cuts. With that route to higher pay cut off, and with increasing class sizes, Kiefer told the school board she was resigning:
"Here's my problem: When I started, I had all these incentives to improve and now I am completely stuck," Kiefer told the board. "I have no master's degree, I have no way to increase my salary and there are no incentives in place for improving my practice. Others in my department and in this school make a lot more money than I do and I produce the same, quality results." [...]Christine Kiefer isn't the only Wisconsin teacher to leave in the wake of Act 10—retirements skyrocketed after the law was passed—and Act 10 isn't the only bad policy pushing dedicated teachers out of the classroom, though, as we'll see below the fold.
"I love teaching kids and I love the kids' families and I love my colleagues and I love Whitefish Bay, but I cannot wait any longer," she said. "I can't stay at a job that sacrifices all my time for my own family—at least two hours every school night and between six to 12 hours every weekend—time after the bell rings, time that produces such good results when there is no good faith effort on the part of the district to pay what I am worth, to pay me what you would probably have to pay an equivalent replacement for me."
Last fall, Kris Nielsen, who had moved to North Carolina specifically for a teaching job after years teaching in New Mexico and Oregon, wrote, "I am quitting without remorse and without second thoughts" because:
I refuse to be led by a top-down hierarchy that is completely detached from the classrooms for which it is supposed to be responsible.In spring 2012, the "worst eighth-grade math teacher in New York City" decided to leave teaching. Not much of a loss if she was the worst, right? Yeah, well, Carolyn Abbott was teaching at a gifted-and-talented school, where:
I will not spend another day under the expectations that I prepare every student for the increasing numbers of meaningless tests.
I refuse to be an unpaid administrator of field tests that take advantage of children for the sake of profit. [...]
I’m tired of watching my students produce amazing things, which show their true understanding of 21st century skills, only to see their looks of disappointment when they don’t meet the arbitrary expectations of low-level state and district tests that do not assess their skills.
The material covered on the state eighth-grade math exam is taught in the fifth or sixth grade at Anderson. “I don’t teach the curriculum they’re being tested on,” Abbott explained. “It feels like I’m being graded on somebody else’s work.”Abbott left teaching to go to graduate school in mathematics.
The math that she teaches is more advanced, culminating in high-school level algebra and a different and more challenging test, New York State’s Regents exam in Integrated Algebra. To receive a high school diploma in the state of New York, students must demonstrate mastery of the New York State learning standards in mathematics by receiving a score of 65 or higher on the Regents exam. In 2010-11, nearly 300,000 students across the state of New York took the Integrated Algebra Regents exam; most of the 73 percent who passed the exam with a score of 65 or higher were tenth-graders. [...]
How do her students perform on the content that she actually does teach? This year, the 64 eighth-graders at Anderson she teaches are divided into two groups, an honors section and a regular section. All but one of the students in the honors section took the Regents Integrated Algebra exam in January; the other student and most of the regular-section students will take the exam in June. All of the January test-takers passed with flying colors, and more than one-third achieved a perfect score of 100 on the exam.
It's relatively rare that a teacher's decision to leave the classroom gets much attention. But if we're concerned with keeping good teachers and making it easier to become a good teacher or to stay a good teacher through years on the job, it's worth paying attention to what teachers say as they're leaving the profession—just as we should be listening to them as they struggle to keep teaching. Right now, we have a lot of terrible policies that have been imposed from above, through big money and high-powered PR strategies. Let's start including teachers' voices in making education policy, before they're on their way out the door.