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Slave, Masochist, or Just a Teacher Burning Out?


Marilyn Rhames

Slave. Masochist. These are the words two teachers used to describe themselves at the end of a school day last week.

"I don't know why anyone would want this job—I have no life," one teacher said.

"We seriously love pain, that's why we do it," added the other, stretching her body across a group of desks as if it were a bed.

Their words, though tongue in cheek, echoed in my ears. These are strong, hardworking teachers. They come to school an hour before it starts and leave two hours after it's over. They have master's degrees and hefty student loans that seem to never go away.

It's clear that they love their students. Still, I wonder how much longer they will work in the classroom. They work so much that they put their health at risk, not getting enough sleep, not participating in enough self-care. Why? Because the needs of the classroom are so great, and if they don't step up to the plate to help their students learn, then who will? Luckily for them, they work in a school where almost everybody is working just as hard, and knowing that somehow eases the pressure ... a little.

Will these teachers still be in the classroom in 10 years? Probably not. I imagine they will be working in administration or consulting or in policy or in nonprofit work. With experience, the three-to-seven-year span, they are not brand new to the profession but not exactly veterans, either. They haven't started a family yet and are always amazed that I am doing the same job with two children to raise.

The expectations for teacher performance continues to rise as students get needier. It takes hours outside of the classroom to even get close to meeting those expectations. So we work and work and work—in the middle of the night, on holidays, and on weekends. That's what "highly effective" teachers do.

I wrote in my last post that a good principal can keep teachers in the classroom longer than they thought they would stay. I truly believe that. But even with the support of a great principal, the question remains: How long can a good teacher continue to live like this? What is the ideal number of years? A life-long career or just for a season?

One way to minimize teacher turnover would be to add a co-teacher, or at least an assistant—I'll even take a part-time assistant!—to every classroom. Yes, this would be an expensive fix, but it would be an effective one. If we are serious about stopping the "revolving door," we will have to put our money where our mouth is by giving teachers adequate support.

The multifaceted role of a highly effective teacher has become too weighty for just one person. I've had an assistant in the past—someone to help grade papers, make phone calls home, make my copies and posters, pull small groups for re-teaching—and it freed me up to do the heavy intellectual work of differentiation, data analysis, and curriculum planning. I am all for having high expectations and accountability for teachers, but only if there are the necessary supports in place.

Those two teachers are not slaves or masochists, though they feel like them at times. They are talented teachers who care deeply for students and are on the verge of burning out. Sometimes, one must look closely to see the difference.

Marilyn Rhames is a middle grades teacher at a charter school in Chicago and runs a nonprofit called Teachers Who Pray. She is the author of the Education Week Teacher blog Charting My Own Course.

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