Fifty percent of U.S. urban public school teachers leave the profession within their first five years of teaching. Why do they leave-and why do they stay?
Ask any public school teacher why they got into teaching and why they stay and you will get the same answer: It’s the kids. Even among those who leave teaching, many regret losing the connection that motivated them to choose teaching as their career. It’s a tough time to be a teacher. As in many professions, teachers find that inflation has outpaced their salaries. Budget cuts have hit teachers hard-already accustomed to “doing more with less,” some teachers worry that they have no ability to make a difference. Teachers like Koryn Saunders are so dedicated to their students that they look beyond the classroom to make a difference.
Retired elementary-school teacher Anna Rosati of Loretto, Minn., fondly remembers sitting around her mother’s large dining-room table every day after school with her siblings, cousins and neighbors while her mother supervised their homework. The childhood ritual had such an influence on Rosati and her siblings that several grew up to become teachers. “My mother was always teaching us,” said Rosati, who knew when she was very young that she wanted to be a teacher.
Susan J. Goetz, Ed.D, director of undergraduate and graduate initial licensure of education programs at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, has heard similar stories over and over from the women who want to become teachers. “We have them write a paper about why they want to be teachers,” she said, adding that for many women, teaching has been almost a lifelong dream. “Most of them will say ‘I used to pretend I was a teacher when I was a little kid.'”
Living the dream
Unfortunately, once new teachers graduate from school, get their license, and land in the classroom, many find the job to be a lot harder than they’d imagined.
Statistics bear this out. According to the National Education Association (NEA), 20 percent of all new teachers quit within three years. In urban areas, the numbers are even more startling-nearly 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession within five years.
What’s causing so many teachers to seemingly throw away their childhood dreams so quickly? Denise Specht, a spokeswoman for Education Minnesota, sums it up: “Teaching is a noble profession, but it shouldn’t require a vow of poverty. … Salaries are a problem. Teachers make $20,000 a year less than other professionals with comparable education, and salaries haven’t been keeping pace with inflation. The cost of health insurance is driving teachers into other professions. A lack of mentoring and support can make new teachers feel very isolated, particularly when today’s students have such complex needs,” she said.
Goetz said she and her colleagues work hard on the front end to try to prepare their students for real-world teaching. “We look for what we call ‘disposition’-the disposition to teach. It’s not enough just to love kids … you have to have more than that. You have to have a lot of patience, you have to have dedication to the profession, you have to be able to get along well-not just with children, but with colleagues-and you have to be an excellent communicator. Communication is key in education today because you’re working with parents, colleagues, and administrators, so we look for all of those skills,” she said.
Teaching is a difficult and demanding career path, Goetz emphasized, and no matter how vigorously schools work to prepare their students for the classroom, many new teachers are hit with the hard reality that teaching is different than they’d thought it would be.
Long days, scant resources
Throughout her teaching career, Jethra Spector of Minneapolis has had to meet many challenges head-on. She described struggling with work-life balance as one of her biggest frustrations, “My day doesn’t end when the kids go home,” said Spector, who has more than 17 years of classroom experience (today a licensed teacher, she was formerly a paraprofessional). “I come home and I may still have papers to grade and lesson plans to think about for the following day-[it’s hard to define when] my school day is done and when my personal life begins.” Jodi Olson of Richfield, who has four years of teaching high school social studies under her belt, does the math: “You can have maybe five hours of roughly 30 students and if you do even just two assignments a week that’s 300 papers a week that you have to correct. You’re given a prep hour every day, but there’s just no way you can get it all done. And that’s just correcting papers-there’s planning, creating tests, and creating assignments too,” she said. Former teacher Alison Jones of Shoreview said it’s hard to do your job when you’re not provided with the necessary tools. She described not having enough teaching materials and having to get to work quite early in order to stand in line with other teachers to use the copy machine. “We had one copy machine for a school of 2,000,” Jones said.
It was, she maintained, a Catch-22 situation: because teachers were only allowed to make a certain number of copies per year. “If you run out-I think I ran out in March-I couldn’t make any more copies unless I begged them off of other teachers,” Jones said.
Powerless to help
Olson said that the varying education and motivation levels of kids in the classroom can also be tough to deal with. “There are kids who really want to do well and want to be challenged, and in the same class there are kids who could care less and are only there because they are required to be because they are under 16. [It’s difficult] to inspire those bottom-level kids while keeping the top-level kids challenged enough, and you can’t ignore the middle kids who are working hard but maybe are still struggling!” she said. Beyond the academic challenges, more and more schools are being called on to deal with the social issues of their students. “What is most depressing is when I get a student who comes with so many issues that I feel ill-equipped to deal with … I’m not a social worker; I’m not a psychiatrist,” Spector said.
Koryn Saunders of St. Paul was frustrated by her inability to help students one-on-one during her six years as a high-school teacher, so she decided to step out of the classroom and became a high-school guidance counselor. “I wanted to get more into the individual aspects of working with students. When you’re teaching, you’re teaching a group of kids-and that can be anywhere from 30 to 40 kids-and you want to service everybody,” she said. “Some students … have issues going on at home that they’re battling with and you can see the distraction in the classroom.”
Saunders wanted the opportunity to spend more time and dig deeper to help her students, but even as a counselor she feels she isn’t able to do enough. “We can’t deal with a lot of the mental health issues because we’re so focused on getting [students] to graduate that we miss the social/emotional pieces. I thought that just by being here as a teacher for six years, and then by being a counselor, I would be able to change some of that, but it’s bigger than me,” she said.
That feeling of powerlessness was a motivating factor in Alison Jones’ decision to resign her teaching position in favor of working in the corporate world. Jones, who taught for 10 years, said she loved working with students, but she came to realize that she and her colleagues had very little influence on policy. “As a teacher, you can’t really be involved in the larger picture-the decision making,” she said.
“[Teaching candidates] need to know what the work day is going to be like and that there are going to be frustrations and that they’re not going to be able to affect a lot of change,” Jones added.
Why pink collars predominate
According to the Minnesota Department of Education, more than 70 percent of Minnesota’s teachers are women. Off the cuff, some try to explain the gender imbalance by saying that, generally, women may be better equipped to deal with the growing social/emotional needs of today’s students, but the experts don’t necessarily agree.
“I don’t have hard-core data on this,” said Goetz, who has expertise in gender education, “[but] I know how girls learn and I know that one of the key things that makes learning relevant for women and girls is having to do with anything that relates to people.
Brenda Alvarez, a spokeswoman for the NEA, added some additional insight: “Salaries are low for teachers when compared to salaries for other professions and that lowers prestige and social value,” she said.
Spector, whose husband is also a teacher, agreed. “I don’t think you should go into it for the money, but if [teaching] were somehow presented as a more lucrative career, then maybe [more men would go into it]. I wish society could shift their perception of what teachers do and how valuable they are,” she said.
It’s the kids
While the challenges of teaching are great, many of those who stay in the field find the rewards even greater. “[Teachers] stay because there is nothing more rewarding than helping children reach their potential. It’s remarkable to see a child engage in learning and grow intellectually,” Specht said. Rosati agreed wholeheartedly. “You can go home feeling good about all the things you did with the thought that maybe you are the only person who has done something good for that child that day,” she said. She proudly recounts tales of running into former students who have eagerly shared stories they remember from her classroom.
Even Jones, who’s left teaching, doesn’t rule out returning to the classroom. “The students I’ve worked with have been wonderful. I’ve been fortunate to be able to work with … [students in] difficult circumstances [who would] show up with big smiles on their faces, happy to be at school.”
And that can go both ways, according to teachers like Jethra Spector. “I have never gotten up in the morning and not been excited about going in to work,” she said.