I never really admitted it before now, but the truth is, I quit.
After 21 years of working in public schools across three different states, in multiple roles, and at various grade levels, I quit.
Of course there were some circumstances that led to my leaving a career that I gave my heart and soul to for all of my young (and middle-aged) adult life. But I quit my job and decided to do something else. I didn’t quit because the kids were “bad,” or because I didn’t like the people I worked with. Actually, I love (and miss) the kids and colleagues whom I shared ALL of my time with. I quit because I deserve something better.
You may ask, what is better than being fulfilled by creating positive, life-changing experiences for others on a daily basis? The answer is simply, nothing. Nothing beats that feeling, with the lone exception of wanting to LIVE my LIFE too. I want to have some control over my time, my hobbies, my travel, the quality time with my family, and the lengths to which I can enjoy life.
I cannot name a K-12 educator who has the autonomy and freedom to LIVE their best life *and* be considered a successful, reliable teacher of kids at the same time. Many other careers afford employees time off that is truly theirs, breaks that allow them to (really) take a break, and weekends and vacations that they can plan without restriction. That is simply not the life of a typical teacher. For years, I have read the statistics about teacher retention and why we can’t attract (or keep) our best and brightest into the profession. The list is usually something like this:
While these reasons are compelling, they don’t entirely define the reason I left the profession. I worked for 21 years, found the pay in my area fair, had been promoted and recognized for my talent and hard work, felt respected by my school, community and leadership, and found advancement in the profession. I even looked forward to going to work everyday. By all counts, things were going relatively well on an individual level. It’s the systemic level that wore me down. I left because the system is broken.
I don’t feel that the life of a teacher is fair, reasonable, or sustainable. As much as I enjoyed going to work everyday, I wanted to go home and enjoy my family. My hours as an educator ran late, and I often worked from home in the evenings and on weekends. When I became a supervisor of teachers, I had to ask others to do the same thing to “get the job done.” The reason for this is because many communities expect schools to be everything to everybody. They expect teachers to be the “single most important factor of student success.” Wow… That’s a lot of pressure to place on a single individual. If we are depending on an individual to be the single greatest factor in the success of the next generation, then our systems are flawed.
In my opinion, public education will only be a success when we move beyond focusing on the individual-- i.e. the teacher-- as the pivotal changemaker, and instead apply systems thinking and begin wrapping our heads around the system as a whole. Great people in a broken system yields demoralizing situations and disenchanted workers. The changes I want to see are those that allow schools to function with quality individuals, who can perform tasks within an outstanding system, to support the growth and development of children. While I agree that teachers are immensely important in shaping the lives of their students, I want us to pick up our heads and see the forest instead of just the trees. We need an education system that creates optimal situations for both students and teachers alike.
I believe great schools-- with realistic expectations for teachers and robust experiences for students-- do exist. However, they need to be equal and available to all. While my intent is not to focus on the disparity between the experiences of students and educators in varying socioeconomic statuses, it is hard to ignore that teachers who service low-socioeconomic communities are called to do more for their students.
Vox contributor Amy Piller agrees in her 2016 article on school segregation, "The most challenging jobs in teaching are the least competitive. Those jobs begin with a task that is near insurmountable, offer the same pay as an easier school, with fewer resources and less support, and thus create a high likelihood of failure and burnout." Unfortunately, the problem isn’t unique. Throughout our country, administrators, teachers, and staff are expected to do the same job with fewer resources in low-income schools as their counterparts in more affluent areas.
When I say "the system is broken," one of the systemic factors glaring in my mind is school funding. Allena Semuels of the Atlantic details the inequities in spending and their effects on public education:
Nationally, high-poverty districts spend 15.6 percent less per student than low-poverty districts do, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Lower spending can irreparably damage a child’s future, especially for kids from poor families. A 20 percent increase in per-pupil spending a year for poor children can lead to an additional year of completed education, 25 percent higher earnings, and a 20-percentage point reduction in the incidence of poverty in adulthood, according to a paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research."
Teachers have remarkably difficult and complex jobs everywhere, but the severity of the work is compounded when the system is stacked against you and those you give your life to serve. It’s not enough to improve schools, we have to create an equality of opportunity for all children. When considering my life as an educator, it is disturbing to think of how much I have given to and sacrificed for a faulty and unequal system. Sacrificing my personal life while remaining unable to create systemic change is why I needed a new career path.
A NEW PATH
The need for change that I was feeling ended up landing me in the corporate world for the first time. In my new corporate work reality, I was simply hired to do a job. That may sound silly, but it is a major change for someone used to the purpose-driven, self-sacrificing life of an educator. This new reality has given me the space to reflect, to notice, to look at things from a different angle. It turns out there may be a few lessons that the education world could consider borrowing from the business world.
Onboarding makes a tangible difference.
I spent my first week shadowing people whom I would support and work with. I was given small tasks to complete to fully understand the components and expectations of the job. I spent my entire second week being immersed in the culture of the company. I was given a mentor who sat next to me and answered my basic questions as I got comfortable in my new role. My supervisor has met with me twice in the first month to find out how to better support me in my transition.
Easing into the new job in this way has been mind-blowing! Especially when I compare it to the onboarding processes I was a part of back in the education world. Though teachers are being described as “the most important factor in the achievement of our students,” our onboarding processes communicate the complete opposite. Teachers are all too often dumped in the deep end to sink or swim, which contributes substantially to our high teacher attrition rate. If we want to attract and keep quality new teachers, and if we want them to experience success, we can’t just drop them in the class with kids and turn them loose. It is essential to properly onboard them and guide them to success with appropriate support, scaffolded experiences, and mentorship.
Jobs are doable when they are focused and streamlined.
I currently work in a corporate training department where great lengths are taken to ensure that trainers have all the tools and support needed whenever a new training is launched. The trainer's job is solely to deliver the content. There are a host of other people who inform the content, develop the activities, and create the materials. I know my part, I do my part, and I know I have a team around me doing the same so we can put together a cohesive puzzle.
Again, mind blown! Imagine that level of focus in the teaching field. A whole team of professionals contributing parts to a greater whole rather than 1 individual expected to do it all. As a society we seem to expect teachers to be parents, nurses, social workers, therapists, data analysts, curriculum writers, academic researchers, marketing and communications experts, as well as tech-savvy, multi-tasking, well-organized, impartial judges of everything that happens in a kids life. To draw a rough analogy, most professionals won’t accept a job as a doctor but spend the bulk of their days doing the work of a lawyer. This bait-and-switch is another factor leading to high teacher attrition; newbies go in with anticipation of being "teachers," then run away a few short years later when the laundry list of titles becomes too long to take on any more.
Staffing means hiring enough heads to wear all the hats.
Chronic funding shortfalls in schools often means understaffing and overstretching: a recipe for burnout. Teachers and school leaders alike are expected to wear way too many hats, because the alternative would be too expensive. Increasing the number of people on payroll costs money, and for some reason, we as a society have come to accept that schools just don't have any money. We treat it like a big unsolvable mystery and move on. But what if instead of expecting teachers to do it all, we staffed adequately for the reality of the job at hand? What if we accepted that schooling is an expensive public good and ponied up the dough that it actually takes?
School funding is a complex, multi-faceted topic for another day (blog coming soon!). For now, there are seven positions I think all schools should have on staff to make the job more realistic:
While some schools have some of these roles already, this should be the standard for all schools, whether they serve affluent or poor communities, and regardless of race or background. The expectations should be the same for all schools, teachers, and children.
Again drawing on my recent learnings in the corporate world, I see there's a thing or two we could borrow and apply to the education world. In many corporate learning or training situations, there are teams of people who write the curriculum, provide the learning aides, train the trainers on how to deliver the content, and then find ways to follow up with and assess the adult learners in real life situations. While I know their is a large difference between schools and companies with adults in them, the expectation of responsibility should be systemic and task specific. Teachers should be provided assistance with tasks that take their attention away from delivering awesome experiences for children. That should be their job and focus. Someone else should be staffed to respond to parent concerns, manage paperwork, assess and analyze data, and monitor lunch and recess. I don’t believe the teacher should be absent from those other responsibilities, but I believe staffing in this way would make for a more systemic approach to the expectations we have for schools and teachers.
Modern day teachers are expected to encompass a much wider variety of skills than persons in other professions. They are expected to be able to be warm and fuzzy with children, be content experts for language, math, science, and social-studies, provide social-emotional learning for students, be great and consistent communicators with parents, have perfect written and oral skills in multiple media forms, be able to manage apps and websites, and respond to the needs of our kids everyday in an ever-changing landscape of teaching and learning. I am exhausted just writing the list. It makes me want to quit again.
I know schools are non-profit entities and not profit-yielding companies. I understand that my suggestions would cause a significant increase in funding for public schools. My stance is that it is worth it. It is imperative that we make the profession rewarding and enjoyable. Opportunities for success have to be available to all. Finally, work-life balance should be the new expectation for educators, and our systems need to reflect this.