It’s been estimated that between 30% and 50% of teachers don’t make it to their fifth year of teaching. This is hardly ever because they’re fired or laid off. They leave the teaching profession by choice. Many of them have bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education. Teaching, for many of them, was their dream, their ultimate life goal.
The high teacher attrition rate in the U.S. costs schools billions of dollars every year. It costs students, too. Research suggests that there’s a direct correlation between teacher turnover and student achievement. The schools with the highest turnover rates often have the lowest standardized test scores.
Teachers are most likely to quit if they work in low-income, urban schools. They’re also most likely to quit if they work for charter schools. Approximately one-third of charter school teachers leave the profession each year. Only around 15% of teachers at traditional public schools leave. Charter school teachers typically have to work longer hours for less pay. Additionally, their job duties often include things outside of the realm of what teachers ordinarily do.
I recently interviewed Robert Guercio, a former Houston charter school principal, about what working at charter schools is like for teachers. He told me, “Part of what’s difficult about working at charter school is that you’re always understaffed. Charter school teachers have to take on the roles of counselors, administrative assistants, and custodians. At one of the schools I worked at, teachers and administrators had to clean the toilets.”
The average teacher works 53 hours per week. Because of the long school days at most charter schools, the teachers there often work more than 60 hours a week. As Guercio mentioned, the job of a charter school teacher often involves more than just instructing, planning, and grading papers. Charter school teachers and teachers in general are expected to wear many hats. Their jobs don’t end when the last school bell rings, as many people think they do.
I spoke to Nínive Calegari, a former charter school and public school teacher, author, filmmaker, and co-founder of 826 Valencia, about the many hats that teachers wear and the challenges teachers face. Calegari has collaborated with 826 Valencia’s other co-founder, Dave Eggers, to raise awareness about what the teaching profession is actually like for most educators.
Calegari and Eggers co-authored a book, Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers, and co-produced a film, American Teacher. Their film and book aim to elevate the teaching profession and show everyday Americans how sophisticated the work of teacher is.
Throughout my interview with Calegari, she stressed how much responsibility teachers have.
She told me, “What’s intense about being a new teacher, particularly in a low-income area, is the amount of other things that are constantly thrown your way. There aren’t enough resources, and the technology equipment doesn’t work. You have to be a parent, social worker, and educator to the kids. Being a new teacher is incredibly daunting.”
Some education reformers believe that ineffective teachers are education’s main problem, and firing them will be a panacea of sorts. It makes sense that administrators should have the freedom to dismiss teachers who completely fail to uphold standards. However, one has to wonder, how many bad teachers can there possibly be out there? Can that many people actually be entering the teaching profession for the wrong reasons, and don’t the people who struggle the most as new teachers quit after a couple of years anyway?
In 2011, 570 public schools in Texas were deemed academically unacceptable by the Texas Education Agency, based on their standardized test scores. Many of the schools that earned the “unacceptable” rating are located in underserved, urban communities, and many of the schools presumably employ teachers of varying skill levels.
It seems implausible that the majority of the teachers at these 570 failing schools aren’t doing their jobs. One or two ineffective teachers at each school can’t be the reason schools don’t meet state standards. The people running schools, the education system as whole, social factors like poverty, and lack of parental support have to be playing some role in why some schools succeed and others fail.
Calegari told me that in her experience, “The percentage of teachers who aren’t good at what they do is actually quite small. There are far more honorable than dishonorable teachers.”
Along those same lines, Guercio said, “Letting ineffective teachers go might be part of the solution, but it’s not going to fix the problem.”
So, then, what is going to fix the problem? Through their documentary and book, Calegari and Eggers suggest that raising teachers’ salaries and professionalizing teaching will be a step in the right direction. They believe that because good teachers do so much, they should be both respected and fairly compensated.
“If you’re going to teach well, you’re going to have to give everything you’ve got. Excellent teachers who give their all shouldn’t have to go home to financial stress. They shouldn’t have to get a second job,” Calegari said. She also told me that she thinks teachers’ salaries should be doubled. Many of the teachers featured in American Teacher, the documentary produced by Calegari and Eggers, struggle to make ends meet on top of all the other stressors they have to deal with as teachers.
One of the many salient points in American Teacher is that teachers in Finland, Singapore, and South Korea have at least two and a half times as much purchasing power as American teachers do. Additionally, the job of a teacher in Finland, Singapore, and South Korea is as prestigious as the job of a doctor or lawyer. Top graduates from top schools in both of these countries choose to teach because doing so is honorable and financially rewarding.
Finland, Singapore, and South Korea outperform U.S. schools by a landslide. In fact, the education systems in these countries are considered among the top ten highest performing by the Center on International Education Benchmarking.
Documentaries like The Lottery and Waiting for Superman assert that top charter schools in the U.S. are able to succeed because they extend the amount of time kids spend in school and they eliminate the bureaucratic factors that force teachers to “teach to the test.” Many charter schools are inarguably doing innovative things with the freedom they have.
Yet, as previously mentioned, retaining good teachers who find innovative ways to instruct students is a challenge at charter schools, and it’s one of a long list of challenges charter schools face. The fact of the matter is that many charter schools fail. They fail because of financial issues, because they’re run ineffectively, and because they employ teachers who aren’t certified and/or have no prior training or experience. High teacher turnover at struggling charter schools doesn’t help.
If we’re to take what works at top performing charter schools (longer school hours, longer school years, higher expectations, and academic innovation) and apply it to public schools across the board, we have to have the support of our teachers across the board. And to have the support of our teachers, it seems logical that we have to give them our support.
The most excellent teachers, the ones most capable of changing children’s lives, have a breaking point. They can only do so much. Novice teachers who strive for excellence often reach their breaking point before they reach their full potential.
Increased curriculum assistance, more social workers in schools, additional training opportunities, and higher salaries could all be ways to increase support for our teachers, for instance. Finding new ways to make the lives of teachers less stressful while upholding high expectations for them may or may not be the ultimate solution to all our country’s problems when it comes to education, but it might be a good place to start. Something needs to be done to stop our best teachers from leaving the profession.
The famous child psychologist and teacher, Haim Ginott, once said, “Teachers are expected to reach unattainable goals with inadequate tools. The miracle is that at times they accomplish this impossible task.”
We shouldn’t ask teachers to perform miracles, but many of them do again and again. To use them as scapegoats or neglect to give them the respect, recognition, and assistance they need seems like a disservice to them, children, and our future.
If you want to learn more about the challenges teachers face and the impact they have on children, don’t miss American Teacher on the Documentary Channel. It airs on Friday, September 28 at 9:00 p.m. ET.