How would you feel if there were no teachers at your child’s school with more than five year’s experience? How would you feel if you were a new teacher at school and there were hardly any teachers who had worked there for more than few years? These are the reality at many schools, especially in poor areas.
Is it really that bad?
Yes. Between 40 and 50 percent of teachers leave the classroom within their first five years.1 This problem is worse in lower-income schools: 45 percent of all public school teacher turnover took place in just one quarter of the population of public schools: high-poverty, high-minority, urban, and rural schools.2 Teacher turnover is truly a pandemic, albeit not one that gets much attention.
How much does it hurt us?
A huge amount. School systems in the United States spent $4.9 billion on teacher turnover in 2005 and we can safely assume the cost is significantly more today.3 Urban districts can, on average, spend more than $20,000 on each new hire.4 The cost of substitute teachers is around $4 billion annually.5 And, most importantly, there is the cost to student learning. Teacher turnover rates in schools negatively impact student achievement for all the students in a school, not just those in a new teacher’s classroom.6
Why does it happen?
Stress. Teachers experience extremely high levels of stress. 46% of teachers report high daily stress during the school year. That’s tied with nurses for the highest rate among all occupational groups.7 Another survey of teachers showed 58 percent reported they have poor mental health, double the national average in all jobs. The vast majority of teachers say demands of the job interfere with family life are and that they are physically and emotionally exhausted at the end of the day.8
Why so much stress?
An unrealistic workload: teachers simply have too much to do. “Prior to taking on any extracurricular activities, teachers work an average of 10 hours and 40 minutes a day, three hours and 20 minutes beyond the average required work day in public schools nationwide. Those teachers who take on extracurricular clubs or athletics (43% of teachers) add another 90 minutes on average to their work day. As one Kentucky teacher put it, “Our work is never done. We take grading home, stay late, answer phone calls constantly, and lay awake at night thinking about how to change things to meet our students’ needs.’”9
Teachers in the US spend more time in class with students and less time planning, grading, etc. than teachers in most other highly-developed countries.10 Teachers who do an excellent job are often working in unsustainable conditions (e.g., 60 hours per week, relentless stress, inadequate resources, lack of support or time, etc.). At "no excuses" schools where idealistic, energetic teachers work overtime to help struggling students, teachers typically leave after only a few years on the job. In challenging schools, teachers' job requirements and the intensity required to meet them are not realistic to sustain for more than two to three years.11
What should we do about it?
“To improve the quality of teaching,” says one leading researcher, “You need to improve the quality of the teaching job.”12 Amen! We have been trying to reform public education for decades with limited success because we have been ignoring the root cause: teacher turnover. How can we expect teachers to become good at their craft when so many only stay in the job for a few years? How can we expect teachers to stay in the job for more than a few years when the job itself is so stressful and demanding of time. Here are a few things we could to make the job more sustainable:
5Substitute Teachers are a Large Presence in American Schools
As many parents act as teachers in these strange times, there has been a lot of talk on social media about appreciating teachers. Parents are outdoing themselves sharing funny and heartbreaking stories of their struggles with home-schooling. But before the pandemic, most people would have sincerely claimed to appreciate teachers... so why the increased appreciation for teachers now?
One part of the answer is more obvious: parents are experiencing firsthand how challenging it is to be with children that many hours in a row. Put another way, parents are seeing the “soft skills” work of teaching: being patient and kind, group management, being entertaining and engaging. But our new appreciation of teachers is also about something else, something less obvious...
Parents are now experiencing how cognitively difficult it is to teach academic content. They are having to help their children do things like add and multiply fractions and realizing:
This is harder than it seems! Why do we keep the denominators the same, but not the denominators, the same when we add fractions? When we multiply fractions, why is the answer less than either of the fractions being multiplied? What does it even mean to multiply fractions?
In grappling with these sorts of questions, parents are getting a taste of the deep cognitive work of teaching, which includes understanding the academic content itself, applying strong pedagogy (how to plan and deliver lessons) to the content, analyzing assessment results, giving feedback that actually helps students to do better next time, and the like.
What’s going on here? Wasn’t it obvious that the cognitive work of teaching would be difficult and important? Did we need a pandemic to make us realize it? Parents’ strong reactions to having to teach their children at home gives us the answers: no, it was not obvious and, yes, we did. This cognitive-academic part of teaching has long been overlooked and underestimated, to the detriment of our students.
The result of us under-appreciating the deep cognitive work of teaching is that have not given teachers enough time, training, or support to do it well; we have just assumed that teachers could figure it out based on a couple of classes in their respective teacher training programs. Teachers need large amounts of time to study their content, plan how to present this content to students, design and grade assessments, and reflect on how successful their teaching was and how they will improve their teaching next time--all of which teachers should do both alone and with peers. Note that all of this vital and time-consuming work must take place when teachers are not in the classroom with students.
The status quo at most schools is that teachers have one or two periods a day as “planning periods”--not nearly enough time to do all this deep cognitive work. Even worse, teachers are often given other responsibilities during their planning periods, such as helping with misbehaving students or attending useless meetings. This means that teachers are left to do the bulk of their planning, grading, and reflecting at home in evenings and weekends, when they are tired and not with their colleagues. It’s no wonder we so often end up with the worst of both worlds: mediocre teaching and burnt-out teachers.
A silver lining of our current situation is that parents now better understand and respect the deep, challenging, cognitive aspect of teaching. How could we show teachers we truly appreciate this part of their work? First, restructure teachers’ jobs so that they have more time to do this critical cognitive work; give them half of their working day to plan, grade, and reflect, both alone and with colleagues. Second, give every teacher a highly-skilled instruction coach, who can help them do this challenging work and become more proficient over time. Third, pay teachers more. If we want to attract and retain people who can excel at this cognitively demanding work, teacher salaries need to be comparable with salaries of other cognitively demanding professions. Doing any of these would go a lot farther than another witty social media post about how hard it is to teach our kids at home. (That said, keep the appreciative posts coming!)
Appreciating teachers means appreciating the deep cognitive work they must do. Thank you, teachers.
Imagine a teacher’s job thirty or more years ago. Most likely...
A textbook would be at the center of the teaching. The textbook would tell the teacher what content to teach and in what order (scope and sequence). The textbook would provide plans and materials for daily lessons. To start a lesson, all the teacher would have to do is say “Class, open your books to page 117. Let’s begin”. In short, teaching lesson planning was minimal and largely optional.
The teacher’s job was to present the content, the students’ to learn it. When students didn’t learn, it was presumed that they, the students, were at fault. It was commonly accepted that many students, those with various disabilities, just couldn’t or wouldn’t learn.
The school day ended around 2:30. Teachers had time, during regular business hours, to plan, grade, hold meetings, communicate with parents, and leave on time to be able to transport their own children to and from school and activities. And after all that, they could still be home in time for dinner and spending time with family and friends.
Teachers had three months(!) off in the summer. In that time, they could vacation with family, supervise children who were out of school themselves, work a second job to earn some extra money, de-stress, and plan from the coming school year.
Teaching was a well-paid and well-respected profession, especially for women, who (sadly) had limited opportunities in other professions. The teaching profession attracted many of the “best and brightest” college graduates (again, mainly women) and most teachers weren’t thinking they’d be better off in another profession.
Fast forward to the present…
Teachers are expected to plan lessons in a much more rigorous way and, often, to build them from scratch. They study academic standards (states’ descriptions of what students are supposed to learn in each grade level), find texts other resources for lessons, design quizzes, tests, and writing assignments. They try to sequence lessons in a coherent way so that they build on each other. The amount of planning is so large that planning could be a full-time job in itself (and it is a full-time job called "curriculum developer").
Teachers are responsible for making sure all students learn and are blamed if they don’t. This includes students with special needs, students who don’t speak English, and students who, for various reasons, are academically far below grade level. Teachers are expected to differentiate--that is, to make different versions of lessons for different students depending on their strengths and weaknesses academically and social-emotionally.
Many teachers work in schools with extended school days and extended school years. These innovations mean more academic time for students, which seems especially important in schools where many students are academically far behind. The extra time in the classroom, we hope, allows them to catch up. The extended school day and school year also means less time for teachers to plan, grade, hold meetings, and communicate with parents--not to mention, less time to spend not working and being with family and friends.
Teaching is no longer a well-paid and well-respected profession, for men or women. Few graduates from top colleges and universities pursue teaching. Many teachers leave the profession to pursue jobs with better pay, fewer hours, and less stress (even if it means they have no time off in the summer!). Women, who (happily) have greater opportunity in other professions, are no longer stuck in teaching. Good for them and good for society, but it means the teaching profession is no longer able to keep as many talented women in the classroom.
What to do about it…