Modern Classroom Stress Hastens Teacher Exodus

Olivia ChristopherOlivia Christopher sits nervously in her chair, glancing at the clock on the wall. The seconds are ticking away quickly and the butterflies in her stomach are reaching a crescendo.

The bell goes, the door flies open, and a wave of middle school students pour through the door. The classroom is buzzing with excitement as the students lay eyes on Señora Christopher for the first time.

In the Spanish that she learnt at San Diego State University and during a semester abroad in Spain, Christopher introduces herself and lays out the details of the semester’s curriculum. The smiling faces of the students make all the years of hard work seem worthwhile. She hands out the day’s worksheets and begins her career as a Chicago Public Schools Spanish language teacher.

In the weeks and years that come, Señora Christopher will be threatened, harassed, and intimidated. She will be reduced to tears at home, question the point of her vocation, and often feel totally alone. The one thing that she will not do is quit. That determination to stay in her job puts Christopher in an almost elite category; she will survive her first five years in teaching without walking out of the door for good. Almost fifty percent of teachers in the United States aren’t strong enough to do it. So where is it all going wrong?

“Teachers don’t get the opportunities that they need, and the experience that they need before they are thrown into the classroom. Three months of student teaching just isn’t enough.”

And that in Christopher’s opinion was just the beginning of the problems.

“Administration would hire you and expect you to develop curriculum and deal with classroom management. When I asked about the mentor program they said they didn’t have the staff or the money to run it.”

Money is often taken away from teacher support and affects vulnerable teachers acutely.

“It seems to be the first thing that goes, the support system. Management thinks that all the money should go to the students.”

A quick look at the budget of Longmont’s Twin Peaks Charter Academy where Christopher works shows the inadequate funding dedicated to professional development. Out of a net operating budget of almost $6.5 million, a total of $13,000 is set aside to share among almost 50 teachers.

The cold, stark reality that three months of unpaid student teaching has done little to prepare the new educator usually precipitates the first big weeding out of the new employees. Romanticism and mystique are first up on the chopping block.

As a former Chicago Teaching Fellow and new teacher mentor, Christopher has seen many new recruits come and go.

“I think that some teachers come in and think that they are going to change the world. Then they have their first day and their first experience of a student being disrespectful. No one has an idea of how challenging urban districts can be, unless of course you grew up in one.”

Fiscal pressure can also have a big effect. In Colorado, where Christopher now teaches, wages are notoriously low.

“Most of the teachers in Colorado are from here and they don’t know anything different. It appears to be normal here for teachers to have a second job, and to not have money. No one seems to be bothered that they have a master’s degree and they’re not making more than forty thousand. To me, it’s demeaning.”

Dwindling resources, endless professional development initiatives, and a chronically heavy workload all take a toll on the new teacher.

“At public school I had 180 students, so if you figure that every day a kid is turning in an assignment that needs to get graded, on top of creating curriculum, on top of creating exams, on top of doing administrative duties that the school wants you to do, it’s all too much.”

Throw in the almost forced unpaid attendance after classes finish in Colorado and you have the makings of a perfect storm of despair.

“They want you to be part of every committee that comes up, they want you to coach, but they don’t want to pay you for it. Administration makes you feel a little bit guilty if you aren’t staying, you kind of get a look from your principal that says, ‘you’re leaving already?’”

Donna CoonerThe job of orientating new teachers falls to people like Donna Cooner. Cooner is the director of Colorado State University’s School of Teacher Education and Principal Preparation, or STEPP for short.

Cooner is well aware of the pitfalls that destroy the dreams of educators and does her best to get the new recruits ready.

Seated in her office, beneath her framed doctorate in education, Cooner ruminated on the attrition problem and the ways that her department is trying to deal with it.

“We’re are in an age where students are driving instruction, instead of teachers driving instruction. If you are looking at why people are leaving the profession, it could possibly be that they don’t match that style. They had in their mind that they were going to be the lecturer, the boss.”

Cooner had also suffered what she considered to be one of the main problems that new teachers all across the U.S. face.

“Isolation is one of the key factors that teachers bring up when they talk about why they leave the classroom. There’s no support for a mentoring, co-teaching model for the first couple of years. But, part of what we do at STEPP is that we prepare them in a community, this helps teachers go into it with their eyes open.”

Cooner also considered her role in thinning the herd of prospective teachers to be especially important.

“Our goal is to weed out the ones that really shouldn’t be there. I always say that if I can talk you out of it, then I will. I think we all enter teaching for certain altruistic motives, but I think there also has to be a determination.”

The high attrition rate is also creating another problem, the loss of quality educators that would theoretically have ended up becoming principals of schools.

“Teachers are looking at the job of principal and saying, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ It is important because if we look at the whole education system we can see deficiencies in several places.”

However, Cooner doesn’t see pay as being as big an issue as Olivia Christopher saw it.

“I don’t think pay is the big reason why teachers are leaving. I think the problem with expectation is the biggest part of it.”

Unfortunately, accurate and unbiased poll data reflecting Cooner’s statement is practically nonexistent.

The constant pressure of being judged and juggling multiple competing job roles also leaves teachers confused and tired.

“I think teachers are saying that you’re requiring me to do more and more. I think that they just feel overwhelmingly that the job is just not worth it. It’s the main reason why teachers are searching out new careers.”

Putting a finger on a single reason for teachers leaving the profession in droves is impossible. Multiple factors conspire together to leave educators shell-shocked and despondent. Even worse is the thought that career progression only leads to more of the same. Thankfully, many people are still answering the call and trying their hands at guiding the next generation. STEPP program students like Ryan Barrios look forward to the challenge.

“I’m excited, the program here is really good. I’m excited about all of it. I’m really looking forward to teaching.”

© 2012 Jamie M. Bradley All Rights Reserved

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