My grandfather once taught school in Kentucky. At the end of his first year he announced, “I’d rather dig post holes than teach!” and quit to become a bus driver. Anyone who has ever dug post holes knows this is not high praise for the teaching profession.
Much has happened since Granddad stood before a classroom: man on the moon, a phone that plays TV shows in every pocket, fifteen-dollar gourmet hamburgers. Yet teachers still abandon the profession at a high rate: half of them quit within the first five years. Many more, including some of the best qualified and most dedicated scholars, never consider a career in education in the first place. We think of teaching as a respected profession, supremely important to the community. But compared with other careers, teaching scores consistently low in compensation and consistently high in burnout.
According to studies from the University of Pittsburgh and University of Tennessee among others, two key factors – relatively low pay and lack of control and autonomy – are driving teachers away from the profession, with younger and highly qualified teachers changing careers in greater numbers. National figures and individual stories reinforce the fact that teachers struggle to build professionally satisfying and financially secure careers.
The Metlife Survey of the American Teacher, conducted every year from 1984 through 2012, showed that job satisfaction in the final year of the survey was the lowest in twenty-five years. Thirty-nine percent of a national sample of teachers said they were satisfied with their jobs, down from a 62% satisfaction rate only four years earlier.
Low Pay, Long Hours
Talk to a teacher about the situation and the first reason for her dissatisfaction is likely to be her salary. Published compensation figures are all over the map. The National Association of Colleges and Employers put the average teacher annual salary at $41,000 nationally, with wide disparity among the states – a teacher in North Dakota earns about half of what his counterpart in California brings in. [naceweb.org]The National Education Association reports an estimated nationwide average in 2015 of $57,379. (Part of the difference in results is how “teacher” is defined.)
Whatever the figure, it’s clear that teachers are expected to work a lot of extra hours without compensation. According to NEA reports, the average teacher works about 12 hours a week outside of class grading papers, making lesson plans, doing lunchroom duty, and other job-related responsibilities. More than 40% of teachers report working over 60 hours a week. More than a quarter of teachers say they have a second job on top of all that in order to make ends meet.
Not only are starting salaries relatively low. As they gain experience, teachers earn salary increases that are less than other professions. The average income for a U.S. worker with at least a four-year degree is 50% higher than the average for a teacher with ten years of experience. In the 2015-16 salary ranking by payscale.com, an experienced education major with a master’s ranked 241st in a list of advanced degrees, behind accounting, nursing, marketing, and civil engineering. Another study put pay for teachers with ten years of classroom experience behind non-college employees including truck drivers, flight attendants, and sheet metal workers. The average sales manager doubles his income by mid-career; a teacher’s pay goes up about 25% by then.
Why are salaries so low? Are teachers less valuable to the community than civil engineers and truck drivers? No, but economics work against them. Salaries for jobs like civil engineering are based on supply and demand: engineering firms will pay whatever it takes to fill jobs in order to serve their clients and make money. (The starting salary for a petroleum engineer with a graduate degree is approaching $100,000.)
As public employees for the most part, teachers are largely at the mercy of political forces, government regulations, tax laws and revenues, and municipal budget battles. Their value is harder to quantify in dollars and cents. How can you put a price on the moment when the light comes on and a struggling child finally sees the answer? When the shy, underperforming girl blossoms into a star pupil as a result of patient encouragement? When the discipline problem discovers poetry and it transforms his attitude?
Because supply and demand don’t drive K-12 education the way they drive business, education has always been a community-funded effort. Tax dollars pay for teaching for the same reason they pay for parks, museums, and symphony orchestras: they are essential to our wellbeing far beyond their worth on a balance sheet. In essence, the reason teacher salaries are relatively low is because those who hold the purse strings rank a great many public expenditures as more important than adequate teacher compensation. Rather than supply and demand, it’s a matter of priorities. As one teacher observed, “It’s less a matter of raw dollars than how dollars are allocated. There’s a fortune spent on the front office and administration, but bureaucratic costs add very little to the classroom experience.”
Without great teachers, great schools are impossible. As long as teacher pay remains below average we will find it hard to have schools that are above average.
More Responsibility, Less Control
The second reason why teachers struggle is that most of them have so little autonomy. This is one aspect of the profession that has clearly worsened since Granddad’s era. In his day, teachers had lessons to plan, textbooks to get the class through, homework and tests to grade, report cards to send home, and a year-end report to the county showing who passed to the next grade and who didn’t. As long as he fulfilled those responsibilities, what minimal bureaucracy there was left him alone to teach as he thought best.
If a student lagged behind in understanding a concept, Granddad could take extra time with it or explain it in a different way. He had the freedom to teach based on his own personal strengths and interests. If it was a beautiful day, he could take the class outside and demonstrate the physical properties of plants by playing “Turkey in the Straw” on a blade of grass (which he did exceedingly well). If students were disruptive, he made them stand in a corner of the room or go outside until they straightened up. If he had to send someone to the principal, he had absolutely no doubt that the principal would back him up, and that the wayward child would hear more about it from his parents when he got home.
Like a ship collecting barnacles day after day, the craft of teaching has steadily accrued extra responsibilities since Granddad’s day that have impeded teachers’ success both in the classroom and on the professional ladder. These additional tasks take time, energy, and resources away from the classroom experience that teachers want to provide and that students need to experience. They pull teachers away from teaching and make it one of the most stressful of all jobs.
One culprit is the stream of reports, assessments, and other paperwork that have no direct bearing on the classroom and yet occupy considerable professional time for teachers. Another is a rush of new supposedly “time-saving” technologies. In fact, such technology actually robs teachers of time as a consequence of all the reporting requirements and other strings attached. Yet another burdensome responsibility is the series of mandates most teachers work under that prescribe how they much teach. These school directives tend toward a one-size-fits-all solution that is too inflexible to take different children’s interests, abilities, and obstacles into account. It doesn’t allow a teacher to bring her personal strengths to the lesson if those strengths drift outside official guidelines.
One glimmer of encouraging news is that two of the biggest frustrations that had teachers reaching for the aspirin and their retirement papers have finally been recognized for the disasters they were. No Child Left Behind, which established national standards for student advancement, made teachers responsible for results they could not control. Common Core, a nationwide standardized curriculum, diminished some of the problems of NCLB but raised others. These mandates limited teachers’ options in the classroom and tied their professional assessments to a handful of results that could be high or low for reasons that have nothing do to with teaching ability. NCLB was, mercifully, left behind by Congress early this year. Common Core standards are being rolled out to mixed reviews.
Teachers face a challenge in trying to keep up with ever-changing curriculum standards, juggling federal, state, and local directives. A school district will decide to change its curriculum in a particular subject. New textbooks have to be ordered, teachers have to prepare new lessons and new tests, then assess the improvement in learning. Too often, by the time the teacher settles in to the new routine, the district changes things again and the process starts all over. These decisions come from people far from the classroom who often don’t understand the time and effort required to implement their directives. And the teacher, who alone has to master the new material and is judged by the result, has no control over the process.
“Teachers are frustrated by lack of autonomy, lack of choices, and top-down control,” says Nashville teacher Houston Sarratt. Educators across the country have echoed his frustration at trying to introduce fresh ideas and techniques. He continues, “You get back [from a teaching seminar] all excited and ready to try something new. Then the program notebook sits on the shelf and you never have the chance to do any of it.”
“We’re supposed to be preparing students to compete in a global economy, yet haven’t changed the fundamental approach to education from a hundred years ago when we were training people to work in factories.”
Called on the Carpet
Teachers are often hesitant to try new approaches because the consequences of failure are so high. Rather than being praised and encouraged for creativity, they’re more likely to be called on the carpet for veering away from accepted methods if the new ways don’t work. “Teachers are wary of suggesting anything outside the box because they’re afraid of being criticized or penalized,” Sarratt observes.
Summer Hogarth, an associate of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership who has also taught in the United States, reinforces Sarratt’s point. “Teachers don’t follow their instincts even though it might lead to better teaching. They’re afraid to fail. They follow procedures they know will produce crappy results because at least the results are known.”
About one third of teachers quit teaching within three years; around half quit within five years. As the education field becomes less attractive to young workers, the average age of teachers increases. The most common age for public school teachers in 1988 was 41; twenty years later it was 55. In that time, the number of teachers over the age of 50 more than doubled.
Teachers with the most experience, many of whom still love teaching, find themselves pushed into retirement by Common Core evaluations and administrative pressures. In Connecticut, school superintendent Sal Pascarella observed, “Even our finest teachers are feeling the stress of reforms,” and decide to retire rather than let the pressure build. “There’s lots of institutional knowledge that we’re losing.”
Georgia newspaper columnist Dick Yarbrough collected a host of comments after publishing a column on public education. One retired teacher wrote that after eighteen years of teaching future teachers, “I could no longer tell students to follow their passion into this world that for most of them will be exhausting, frustrating, and ridiculously challenging.” Another retired five years short of retirement “because I just can’t take it anymore…. There is less and less time for planning and grading and doing those little things that go into great teaching.” An English teacher with thirty-nine years of experience observed, “I have never seen such a ridiculous focus on standardized tests and testing.”
Young teachers throw in the towel in even greater numbers than their more seasoned colleagues. After Florida teacher Wendy Bradshaw had a daughter last year, she realized she would one day send her child to the same frustrating and dysfunctional school where she taught. So she quit. Her resignation letter said in part, “I have become more and more disturbed by the misguided reforms taking place which are robbing my students of a developmentally appropriate education….I just cannot justify making students cry anymore….Their shoulders slump with defeat as they are put in front of poorly written tests that they cannot read.” Students come to hate reading because they’re pushed too fast to read uninspiring standardized material. “There’s no joy in it.”
Bradshaw’s superintendent, Kathryn LeRoy, echoes the feelings of educators everywhere when she responds, “We can’t afford to lose any more good teachers. I don’t know what’s going to happen to our public education system if we can’t recruit or retain good teachers.”
Top performing college students shy away from the field of education and toward other careers where they can earn more money and have more control. The “best and brightest,” the energetic, innovative students who should be recruited for the all-important job of teaching our children, are attracted elsewhere. There are some dedicated high achievers who love teaching enough to overlook its shortcomings. But only about 10% of teachers graduate from highly competitive colleges while 25% come from colleges with less competitive or non-competitive admissions standards. A report published in Educational Leadership magazine found that education majors had some of the lowest SAT scores of all students.
Schools lose out not only because so many young, energetic, innovative teachers quickly move on to other careers but also because potential stars in the field never consider teaching in the first place.
Rewards are Worth It
No one can blame recent graduates for looking elsewhere. Why should they dedicate themselves to career paths that promise mediocre pay and high stress? And why should teachers not leave for greener pastures once they see how things are going? Fortunately for us all, there are dedicated and gifted people who still feel called to be teachers – despite the paycheck and despite the long hours, low appreciation and stressful work environment. They are there for the long-haul and find the rewards worth whatever sacrifice and abuse they must endure in order to hear that one student say “My life is different because of you.” One highly respected veteran who is still in the classroom after more than forty years explains simply, “I became a teacher because a teacher inspired me.”
Though the impediments to making teaching a more appealing career are straightforward, the reasons and the solutions for them are not. The process of improvement involves a host of moving parts, a brave assessment of the status quo, and agreement at every level that change is worth the effort. As that dialogue continues, we can all be thankful that in the meantime there are hundreds of thousands of people across the country who step in front of a classroom every morning ready to lead, to inspire, and to open young minds…and who would never even consider the post hole option.