How can we encourage teachers to stay in the profession?

Teachers are by and large an intensely devoted group of professionals. When the calendar turns to August we start focusing on curriculum planning and on ideas for improving our practice in the coming year. We read, we connect with colleagues locally, and we use technology to brainstorm with teachers all around the country, sometimes even across continents, looking for the best ways to help students.

Unfortunately, in recent years back to school time has been increasingly fraught with anxiety for teachers. We collectively brace ourselves for the pretty overwhelming challenges that will come our way in the next ten months. We start telling ourselves we must remember to get enough sleep, we tell ourselves to resist spending our family’s money on supplies for school, we plan for ways to save some time for exercise and self-care.

Recently, frequenting professional online networks, I have been distressed by conditions reported by colleagues across the country:

“Just learned I’ll have classes as large as 37! Anyone have any suggestions for keeping track of the needs of all the kids?”
“I have a class of 42.”
“ I found out that I am going to have a new program in my classroom this year. I already share the classroom with a Spanish teacher and we spend half the year teaching on a cart. I’ve been very upset.”
“I have already started spending my own money, and it’s not even September.”
“I have six classes to prep this year. Good-bye to evenings and weekends with my husband.”
“I’ve lost my classroom and will be teaching on the stage this year. Gym and music classes will be going on in the same space. No one will be able to hear anything.”
“I’m going to be teaching in a converted closet.”

The nation is talking out of both sides of its collective mouth when it comes to education. On the one hand, politicians and others claim education is a top priority in the nation. On the other hand, children aren’t given what they need for effective learning and teacher’s talents are hamstrung by conditions such as those illustrated in the above examples.

Now I’m sure we’ve all seen the same pie charts about government spending in this country. The pie is heavily shaded with military spending and barely registers spending for schools. I can already hear voices rising, telling me, as if I didn’t know, that money is not what makes for good teaching. I absolutely agree – showering money on schools without plans to spend it wisely will not improve practice. However using it to reduce class sizes, provide reasonable classrooms, purchase needed supplies – these are not wildly spendthrift moves – these are just what one does to fund schools adequately so teachers can work their craft without entirely depleting themselves and students can get an education.

Teachers want to help kids. Most are really passionate about how important they feel their calling to be. However if we don’t provide better conditions than we are now for them to do their work in, we aren’t going to keep idealistic teachers long. Altruism eventually gives way when exhaustion and discouragement rule. If we really want an educated populace, we need to make sure teachers have what they need. We want our teachers to look forward to the beginning of another year. We want them to have energy to teach.

Kathreen Harrison

About Kathreen Harrison

Kathreen Harrison is a public school teacher in Maine. She has a master’s degree from Bank Street College of Education and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. She has worked in a variety of schools in New York and Maine in a number of capacities – French teacher, gifted and talented teacher, elementary school teacher, and curriculum coordinator for island schools. She has lived in Maine for 20 years and has a particular interest in school reform.