Last week a teacher in my school announced that he is leaving the profession. He has taken a job in the private sector. He said that he felt stuck, with no way to move up in his career without moving out. Another colleague of mine told me a couple days ago that he doesn't think he can keep teaching full time. He has very high standards for himself, and in his second year, he is finding it difficult to sustain the level of energy that it takes to do his job well. Unfortunately, these types of stories are not uncommon in public schools today. Too many students are losing their teachers to burnout and lack of career mobility.
So why does teacher retention continue to be such a significant challenge? Some studies point to the need for stronger principal leadership. Others suggest that poor overall working conditions are to blame. I agree that principals should mentor teachers more and that school districts should increase support for early career teachers. But none of this will matter if we don't take a serious look at the system in which we work.
My first few years in the classroom were very challenging. My first year, I taught three different classes in two departments. I struggled to stay above water. In my second year, I started to seek out leadership opportunities and get involved in extracurricular programs. By my seventh year, in addition to teaching full time, I was leading international student trips, serving as department chair, coordinating a home visit program, advising student clubs, working on my National Board certification, and at the same time, learning how to be a new dad. I was completely overwhelmed.
Friends and colleagues have asked me, if you are so busy and tired, why don't you just focus on teaching and say no to all of these other add-ons? While my first priority at school has always been my students and the lessons that I prepare for them, my work outside of the classroom has made the job even more fulfilling. But again, the system, in which we teach five or six classes a day every day, does not allow for teachers to do much more than teaching without risking complete burnout.
I decided to challenge the system two years ago by pursuing a hybrid role with the support of the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ). Now in my second year of a reduced teaching schedule (I currently teach two classes), I am able to incorporate much more of my leadership work and extracurricular responsibilities into my workday. I am no less busyin fact, I probably am working more hours than I was when I was teaching full time. But with exciting new challenges and more time to think about them, I feel re-energized and more committed to my students and to my profession than ever before.
I suspect many other teachers would feel the same.
Noah Zeichner divides his time evenly between teaching social studies at Chief Sealth International High School in Seattle and supporting the Center for Teaching Quality New Millennium Initiative's efforts to improve Washington's schools.