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Why Teachers Are Fed Up and Burned Out

Within the last few weeks, a series of essays have blamed schools of education for turning out teachers who are not prepared for the realities of the classroom ("Why Teacher Colleges Get a Flunking Grade," The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 24;  " 'An Industry of Mediocrity,' " The New York Times, Oct. 20).  They charge that there is far too much emphasis on theory and not nearly enough on practice.  They're right.  But no matter how much these institutions improve, they canot get new teachers ready for something that is given short shrift in the debate.

Richard Ingersoll, professor in the University of Pennsylvania's education school, says it best ("Why Do Teachers Quit?" The Atlantic, Oct. 25).  Even the most highly qualified teachers who love teaching eventually become emotionally and physically drained.  As Ingersoll explains: "It's just a lack of respect.  Teachers in schools do not call the shots.  They have very little to say.  They're told what to do; it's a very disempowered line of work."  The situation shows up in the rate of turnover.  Between 40 and 50 percent of public school teachers leave the profession within the first five years.  Nine and a half percent of that total leave even before the end of their first year.

I'm not defending the nation's 1,400 schools of education. They vary widely in quality.  But even the best of them can do very little to change the way public schools in this country are run.  Teachers unions continue to try, but they are attacked for protecting the interests of teachers, rather than those of students.  I say the two are inextricably interwoven.  If teachers are treated like tall children, they soon become demoralized, regardless of their knowledge of subject matter and pedagogy. Their students, in turn, suffer. I've seen this time and again.

Teachers are dedicated to their profession, but they are not missionaries.  They are also adults who deserve to be treated accordingly.  Instead, they are constantly vilified and/or infantilized. Is it any wonder that so many teachers become fed up and burned out so soon? Finland's treatment of teachers is the antithesis of ours.  They are granted wide autonomy, and it shows in morale.  Reformers argue that the high status of teachers is the result of the difficulty of getting into the country's fully subsidized master's program.  But which came first: the chicken or the egg?

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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