This is the story of a promising new teacher who reluctantly left the profession because she felt there is a total lack of respect for public school educators. Far too many talented people leave the profession or never enter into it for the same reason. After Hermann’s story, keep reading to find out how NEA is working to stem the tide.
For the purposes of this article I will admit it: I was a good teacher. The body of evidence I have for this claim includes student growth data and TPEP scores, but that wasn’t the proof that mattered to me. The thank-you notes from students, or the compliment paid in passing by my colleagues or administrators was the only validation I needed, and I know among teachers I am in good company in this assertion.
It’s these moments—and only these—that I will miss now that I have quit teaching.
When I tell others about my decision to leave, they assume it was because of the students, saying some variation of, “I could never do that job!” However, the kids were the bright spot of teaching, as most teachers know. The reason I couldn’t stay in the only profession I ever wanted was the negative culture and lack of respect for teachers.
I’ve thought a lot about what I think can be done to fix an education system that is broken. It isn’t salary, students, or class size that is causing educators to flock out of the profession. If the U.S. wants to end the teacher deficit, keep good teachers, and attract young people, an important culture shift must occur right now: administrations must adopt the attitude that teachers are (for the most part) not the enemy. Teachers also have a role, and need to be realistic about their impact on students and school culture if they truly want to effect change.
Speaking as a Millennial—current young teachers and those entering the workforce for another eight years or so—we want to feel as though we are contributing meaningfully to society, a characteristic of our generation. This was my thinking as I entered the profession with a solid idealism that helped me accept many of the aspects I did not like.
My first interaction with the reality of teaching was walking in on the first day without a key to my classroom, laptop, rosters, curricula, or any idea where to find these things. The only people who took time to help me start to get my bearings were other teachers, who also needed to get ready for their day of classes. I learned quickly that as a teacher, one must be resourceful and able to figure out every aspect of the job on their own. There is no relying on district administration, who often can’t be bothered or are outright hostile toward teacher inqiuries.
Another sobering fact I learned was to be a truly effective teacher, one must work constantly. We are treated as thankless workhorses by districts, who pile on new initiatives each year, most of which seem to go nowhere and are dropped at the first sign of something new. I taught Special Education classes (where I thought I could make the most difference), and mornings and afternoons were loaded with IEP meetings. Evenings were filled with planning lessons, weekends with grading and writing IEPs. I quit seeing my friends, family, and husband, and steeled myself to find satisfaction in my job. I was exhausted, and it didn’t change when I later taught general education.
In addition to crushing workloads, I saw teachers being targeted by administrations. I saw administration protect at all costs the teachers who everyone knew were ineffective and lacked integrity, but were the most vocal about their ‘success.’ Millennials prize ethics in their work, and I was learning that schools can be very unethical places. As teachers, we would never create that kind of culture within our own classrooms. Why isn’t the education system in whole held to the same expectation?
Despite workloads that rival ER doctors and lawyers, teachers receive a modicum of the respect. More than 50% of teachers hold graduate degrees, which comes with burdensome student loan debt. However, they are paid almost 20% less than comparably educated professionals. This argument is well-worn, and clearly isn’t as great a deterrent as one might think. One doesn’t get into teaching for money, but for the ability to make an observable difference every single day.
My experience, and the similar experience of so many others, has proven that the chronic exhaustion endured by teachers due to the immense workload burden, ridiculous expectations, and often outright hostility leads to the dangerous consequences of apathy and/or complacency. I concede that not all blame is placed on district administration and bad principals. As a teacher, one must consistently evaluate the effect they are having, and regularly reevaluate their motivations for teaching. Teaching is a selfless occupation, and any teacher who isn’t in it for selfless reasons should not be there.
Thankfully, bad teachers are in the minority, and the larger percentage are caring, kind, flexible, intelligent human beings who genuinely want to help. Still, we are often treated as adversaries by administration, politicians, and the media. Discussion of implicit bias is ubiquitous in teaching; it is cited as the reason for higher discipline for young, black males by teachers who perceive them as a threat.
One of the first things we learn is to challenge our perceptions, because students can sense them whether they are articulated or not. So, the question becomes whether teachers have earned their antagonizing reputation, or whether they are simply living up to the expectations put upon them. If the education system wants to bring in Millennials and generations that follow, a culture shift that assumes positive intent and eliminates this negativity is in immediate order.
Now that I’ve left teaching, I’ve found that my experience as a teacher creates new problems. The job market post-teaching doesn’t acknowledge the skills that educators possess. We can do it all. We can inspire, manage, and train a group while simultaneously learning and operating complicated technologies; we are masters in collaboration; we do regular community outreach and counseling; we are experts in data analysis and process improvement. I have spent nearly six months trying to break into a new career to no avail. My Master’s degree has become a $90,000 piece of paper, as I must start again at the bottom and work my way up. It has been a humbling experience, and I may never make the money I made while teaching.
But I don’t care. I am immeasurably happier. I don’t know what the future holds, but I know I will never return to teaching.
I’ve connected with many teachers, and I can assure you that these are not the complaints of a single, spoiled Millennial. The lack of respect and value given to teachers is a perpetual undercurrent in education. Keeping qualified teachers in the classroom is a critical problem because we are not treated as humans. We are not appreciated or recognized for a job well-done. We aren’t seen as effective. We aren’t seen as professionals.
Change the way you see us. We will live up to your expectations. We will all be better for it.
- Visit myschoolmyvoice.org to find out how educators are helping design and implement local and state policy.
- Check out NEA’s national program to develop education leaders and explore NEA’s National Leadership Competencies.
- Learn how Education Support Professionals are becoming Leaders for Tomorrow.
- Find out about NEA’s Teacher Leadership Institute working to enhance the profession and advance student learning. See how NEA is helping educators directly impact policy by running for public office.