Thursday, May 03, 2007

Study: Stress, low pay turning teachers away

Here is a reprint of an article from Sunday's San Mateo County Times written by Shirley Dang:

Sabrina Walasek loved teaching middle school science and math in Daly City and Felton, near Santa Cruz. But after six years, the Oakland resident found herself worn out from keeping kids in check.

"The amount of energy spent on discipline and behavior management just got to me after awhile," Walasek said.

Ultimately, she said, the stress wasn't worth the pay.

"It was almost impossible to exist in the Bay Area on that salary," Walasek said.

She and her husband, also a teacher, both left the profession. Now she uses her education experience and business degree to develop educational toys at LeapFrog in Emeryville, a job that comes with a much higher paycheck.

But pay isn't the only issue causing teachers to rethink their careers.

Stifled by bureaucracy, faced with poor conditions and blocked from making decisions in their own classrooms, teachers are leaving the profession in droves, according to a new study released Thursday by Cal State University's Teacher Quality Institute.

The 1,900 teachers surveyed cited the litany of rules and regulations, lack of textbooks and supplies and a test-obsessed culture as reasons they left or plan to leave within two years.

"Those kind of things aren't just driving people crazy, they are driving teachers out of the classroom," said Ken Futernick, principal author of the study and director of K-12 Studies at the institute.

About one in five California teachers abandon the field after four years, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. With this type of exodus, the nonprofit Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning, based in Santa Cruz, projects a 30,000-teacher shortage in California by 2015.

At high-poverty schools, one in 10 teachers jumps ship each year, either for a different campus or a new occupation entirely.

"It's students from our most challenging schools who suffer the most," said Jack O'Connell, state superintendent of schools. "We really do have a revolving door."

Nearly half of teachers surveyed by the institute left for personal reasons, such as childbirth or retirement. The other half left out of frustration with the job.

Top reasons include bureaucratic impediments, poor district support, low staff morale, a lack of resources and an unsupportive principal. Like Goyne, more than 40 percent of those who left said they did so because they lacked authority to make decisions about how and what to teach.

"Why did I go pay all that money to go to college if I can't even apply the skills I was taught?" Goyne said.

Barbara Kerr, president of the California Teachers Association, said the study echoed the union's concerns.

"We need to have more say at the local level," Kerr said. "Teachers are feeling like they're not able to use the knowledge they have."

English teacher Paula Gocker left El Cerrito High School in the West Contra Costa school district two years ago after she was ordered to teach using more excerpts from novels and plays rather than whole works of literature.

"I knew I couldn't be culpable in that kind of education," said Gocker, a 20-year veteran and a former Teacher of the Year in West Contra Costa.

Like a quarter of teachers surveyed, she felt strait-jacketed by the required curriculum, which lays out when and how to teach a lesson. She escaped to teach English at San Rafael High School, where she said she has more input, flexibility and respect.

"If teaching is going to attract bright and creative people, they need to see they're teaching people, not just shoveling in curriculum."

Not surprisingly, low pay also tops the list of gripes in the survey. In the Bay Area, the sky-high cost of living and comparatively low salaries make it especially hard for new teachers to stick it out, particularly when the school presents a challenge.

However higher salaries won't necessarily draw teachers back, Futernick said. According to the study, teachers who ditched a campus said poor working conditions trumped pay among reasons for leaving.

"They're almost saying 'you couldn't pay me enough to stay at this school,'" Futernick said. Interestingly enough, teachers surveyed who stayed in the field and felt supported at their campuses cited their compensation as adequate, the study says.

Fewer than one in five teachers said they would return to the field for more money or "combat pay," extra cash for teaching in a tougher school.

"As long as we think of these schools as combat zones, we're not going to close the achievement gap," Futernick said. "We need to turn those schools into learning zones and teaching zones."
Futernick, also the husband of a teacher, said he remained hopeful.

Nearly 30 percent of teachers said they would return to the classroom — even if they did not receive more money — if the school itself changed for the better.

"We have to think about making them attractive places," Futernick said. "When we do that, people will want to go, and they'll want to stay there. Because they'll be doing what they came into the profession to do in the first place, which is to make a difference."

Money is a big concern. I can't afford to live in the city which employs me. This is true for many teachers. My wife also works in San Francisco - for lawyers, who pay her far more than I get paid. And yet even with our two salaries we can't afford to live in San Francisco. Well... we could. But we don't want to settle for what we can afford. And what we'd like for ourselves and our two children we can't afford.

I've commented recently on the "test-obsessed culture" which is also mentioned in this article.

The school bureacracy needs a major overhaul. District administration eats up far too much money. And the hoops they make us jump through. I often think that the people in human resources in my district forget that I am one of the human resources that keeps them employed. They work for me, not the other way around. They provide a service to me and my fellow teachers. Instead, I get excuses for their incompetence and they make it sound like I'm interrupting them when I call for assistance.

I am lucky that I have a supportive principal. I am grateful every day that I have a job at the school that I do. It's a good school. I like the neighborhood and the families that send their children to my school. I like my colleagues; some of them I even respect and admire. And I have a principal that lets me do my job to the best of my ability without getting in my way, no micromanagement, but she supports me when I need help, advice, or just an ear to bend.

I'm not going to leave the field, but this article certianly points out many of the reasons why some people are leaving teaching. If we really respected teachers, if we really valued public education for everyone, if we put our money where are mouths are, then maybe we wouldn't have these problems. But as a culture, our respect for teachers is waning. We undercut equity in education. Some schools have all the money and resources they need; others, sadly, do not. And we just don't pay teachers a salary that compensates them for all the work they do.

If we paid teachers a salary that was commensurate with the responsibility we entrust them with and the accountability we place on their shoulders, we'd have to pay them all a million dollars a year. Now wouldn't that be nice.

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