Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Dropping Like Flies

It used to be that I didn't personally know anyone who was leaving teaching forever, believe it or not. My circle of friends, from the Fellows and from the schools in which I've worked, seemed to be an unusually persistent bunch of people. I'd check with the gang from the Fellows in particular, and we'd tote up all the members of our crew and confirm that each one was still hanging in there. This ritual took on new significance as we reached year 5, the time by which, many studies suggest, 50% of teachers have quit the profession. Each year we would be happy that we made it through without losing anyone.

I don't know what it's been about 2011, though, because it seems like every time I turn around, I'm hearing about someone else closing up shop. A friend of mine, a special ed teacher with great potential, is going back to school for a master's degree in political science. A colleague got hired by a nonprofit for what I'm assuming is better money and shorter hours. Another acquaintance is in the rubber room and prospects for a return to the profession look dim. Add in the colleagues of mine who are transferring to other schools and having babies and I feel like I won't know fully half of the people I'll be starting work with in a few weeks.

Turnover is a big problem in many urban schools, and the problem is not limited to so-called "failing" schools. My school is not failing by any official or unofficial measure, yet our hires for the new school year are now into the double digits, this in a small school. Turnover brings with it new blood, yes, but it also represents destabilization and a loss of institutional memory.

Then there is the larger problem of teachers leaving forever. Some may argue that those who leave are best lost, but I'm not always so sure. Some of these teachers, are know, are good teachers who simply become overwhelmed by the negativity and the pressure and find that they could do something else that won't be as damaging to their mental health. I can't really fault them for that. But not many people are talking about burnout as a factor in the teacher quality problem. Burned-out teachers quit and are, these days, invariably replaced with newbies, many nontraditionally certified and most of whom are struggling against inexperience and nerves.

I'm not suggesting that my anecdotal evidence amounts to a trend. I don't have to; studies confirm that turnover and burnout are problems for schools and kids. And I'm not saying I have an answer (well, I have twenty answers, more like). I feel like I'm going to be in education forever, and that thought makes me pretty happy; I just wonder how much company I'll have when I retire.
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