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The Dropouts No One's Talking About: Teachers

I'm writing this entry as a teacher on the "right side" of July--my summer vacation is not even half over, my pay-check goes to direct deposit bi-monthly, and my days are pretty much free to do as I please. It's a really nice perk, having two months off in the summer. So why would anyone leave a profession that offered this?

Nearly 15% of the teaching workforce leaves the profession every year, according to Alliance for Excellent Education, an advocacy group. They leave high-poverty schools at a rate of 20% year, a rate 50% higher than in their more affluent counterparts. (High teacher turnover disproportionately impacts kids in inner-city schools.) The costs of replacing these teachers--recruiting, training, processing, etc.--amounts to over $2 billion per year. And, on top of this, 40-50% of teachers leave within their first five years.

So with all the "perks"--free or subsidized health care, union representation, and yes, all the vacations, why are so many teachers leaving the profession?

I've written about this before, within the context of the lack of respect afforded to teachers. Teaching is still considered a B-list profession; the brightest students in universities are mostly encouraged to go into more "prestigious" fields, such as law and medicine. This down-rating of the teaching profession no doubt motivates some of these departures.

Salary, too, plays a role. In New York City, where entry into the middle two quartiles of earners starts at the six-figure mark, a profession wherein it takes a full 20 years to get there isn't ideal. Day-to-day, teachers' jobs involve little down-time for email checking or drinking coffee--when you're up in front of 34 kids at 8:20am in the morning, you'd better be ON--and do not end at the close of the school day. Rather, teachers take home hours of grading and planning, time spent working before and after the school day. This is not to say that extra work is unreasonable, so much as the idea that a teacher's day ends when the kids go home is completely false; it includes nights and weekends as well...with no overtime pay.

But the primary reasons why teachers leave, I think, are far more complicated to solve. A lack of adequate training or consistent professional development certainly plays a role, particularly with new teachers in high-needs schools, who simply get fed up and leave before they've gotten the hang of the profession. Moreover, popular rhetoric about "bad teachers" being the cause of student under-achievement, and over-emphasis on students' standardized tests for evaluating teacher performance, serve to demoralize teachers and drive them out of the profession.

Teachers feel they are lambasted constantly for factors outside of their control; it's become popular for people who have no idea what goes into the profession to suddenly feel they are experts on pedagogy, citing a widely-believed but dubious statistic that "if only we could fire the bottom 10% of teachers, education would improve" (one of the tenets of the ed-reform/charter school movement). And in the end, it's not that mythical "bottom 10%" that leaves, but good teachers with loads of potential, who move on to professions that--while perhaps less fulfilling--come without the side dish of public scorn. If we want to keep teachers from dropping out, it's these attitudes that need changing more than anything else.

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