Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Why Are Teachers Burning Out?

It has been half a year since Campbell Brown took over the LA School Report, but the site still occasionally publishes something that's not bunk. Reader Bill Spangler brought this next piece to my attention, and it's worth a look.

"Why Teachers Are Burning Out" is the second in a five-part series about teacher turnover. The first piece in the series looked at how high the LA turnover is and what the costs are, and managed to do so without suggesting that this is actually a good thing or it would be helped by removing tenure. The series is being written by Jane Mayer, a former teacher with both public and charter schools in LA, and Jesse Soza, a former teacher who did a dissertation on origins of teacher dissatisfaction and turnover.

The second entry is actually pretty short and clear and I'm not inclined to argue with it. After surveying some data and experts (including teacher workforce guru Richard Ingersoll), the writers move to a pretty simple statement of the issue:

Could it really be so simple that all teachers need to stay in the classroom is to feel heard, respected and empowered?


When there is a workforce that is intelligent, well-educated, compassionate and committed to service, the best way we can honor them is to trust them to do their jobs. Trust them to teach what needs to be taught, trust their experiences in the classroom are valuable sources of information, trust that they are experts at teaching.

While I'm a little puzzled about how Brown ever let this run in her publication, that doesn't change that I would like to offer the authors a small round of applause. Because there in about 80 words is the whole secret of teacher turnover, retention and burnout. Everything else-- decent pay, empowerment, seats at the fabled table, job protections, the end of high stakes testing and government interference-- everything else is just working out the details.

Mayer and Soza note that the current state of education is not based on that respect for and trust in educators, and that top-down reform has made a mess. "As I have heard again and again from teachers around our city and state, our current education system actually keeps them from the being best versions of themselves as educators."

But they also offer an important insight-- top-down reform cannot be cured by more top-down reform. "As much as we want to, we cannot change the system through new legislation, new standards or new protocols." I think they're half-right here-- the system cannot be fixed by top-down reforms, but the top-down crap that is currently choking education can be best removed by the people who created it. We can't remove, for instance, high stakes testing at the grass roots-- we can only create the pressure for the people who installed that system to dismantle it.

But Mayer and Soza argue that individuals, working form the bottom up, can address three major factors in teacher burnout, the "three conditions that undergird the reasons that teachers are leaving our classrooms at a staggering rate." See if any of these sound familiar.

1. Feeling powerless—and that your work is meaningless.

This is particularly brutal for teachers, most of whom entered the field specifically to make a meaningful difference. Feeling powerless, stripped of the ability to make a meaningful difference in student lives because you're too busy implementing programs and reading scripts and giving tests and doing nothing except what you're told to do-- that is miles away from what most teachers signed up for. The message for school leaders is simple-- if you want to keep teachers, give them power.

That's a tricky one, because some administrators aren't feeling very powerful themselves. And administrators often have trouble actually handing over power, preferring to just lend it, or demanding that the power be used only in the ways they choose (which is, of course, not giving up power at all). In his Cage Busting Teacher book, Rick Hess argues, sort of, that teachers can take power, kind of, as long as they're polite and proper about it. Personally, I've long argued that teaching has become a kind of guerrilla warfare, but that kind of rebelliousness is hard to come by for teachers, who are often inclined to be proper rules followers.

The attacks on education (from people like, ironically, Campbell Brown) are not just corrosive because they attack the profession as human beings and professionals, but because they attack it specifically by justifying the disempowerment of educators. The refrain throughout modern reform has been "teachers are terrible" but the unspoken second half of that sentence is "and that's why they should have no say in what happens next." 

2. Feeling like the norms on the campus are overwhelming and ineffective.

Many teachers feel suffocated by the teaching profession because of the intrusiveness of curriculum, district and federal mandates, behavior management systems, state testing and a constant re-vamping of all of the above. Very few of these “norms” are ever generated by the adults on school campuses, and that disconnect creates a sense of disempowerment. 

In other words, this is really just another flavor of the powerlessness issue. The rules, both official and unofficial, are not very helpful for the business of educating children. In some cases, they actually work against educating children (looking at you, Big Standardized Test). But teachers don't get to sit at the table where these decisions are made. They just have to live with them.

3. Feeling isolated.

When you have no power in the system, no say in what happens, you disengage. And when you disengage, you become isolated. Personally, I'm an introvert with a capital INT, so isolation is not hard to lean into-- but if you lose the connection and community in a school building, it gets even harder to get things done and to have any sort of power at all. Your local union may or may not be the answer, but teachers need some kind of authentic community, and they have to make the effort to create and maintain it.

The series promises to investigate each of these three factors in its upcoming segments. I'm looking forward to seeing exactly what they have to say, because fighting teacher burnout and dropout is becoming one of the big issues of education, and we're not always inclined to talk about it because it feels selfish. But if the hemorrhaging of teachers from the profession is going to end, we have to talk about this stuff.

1 comment:

  1. I'm sending this on to our school board. They can't control all of these factors, but they might be able to imapct some of them.