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I am a high school English teacher in an urban high school in Oklahoma City. I am a member of the American Federation of Teachers, Local 2309. I am a Democrat, a union activist and a worker for social justice. I also am a Christian (Congregationalist). I play chess and coach our school chess team.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Why Teachers Leave



Before I write about today's topic, I would like to report on a positive ending to the problem with student "A" who put her head down on the desk and would not remove it.  I was able to get a good phone number for A and made contact with her mother.  We had a good, constructive conference over the phone.  A's mother said that her daughter had been depressed lately over the death of a friend, but that she, the mother, would speak to her daughter and try to get her to correct her behavior. The last few days A has kept engaged in the class.  A has not been a model student in any sense, but she is at least active and doing work, though not often of the highest quality.  I will take one victory at a time.  

Now, I would like to address a problem that my state of Oklahoma seems to be now coming around to recognize: the growing teacher shortage. Right now, it is estimated that Oklahoma is short about 1000 teachers to fulfill all its vacancies.  This year nearly 500 "emergency certifications" issued statewide. This is a certification that allows someone without any teacher training to step into a school classroom and teach. If those folks are anything like I was when I began to teach for the first time in 1994, I pray for their sanity and health. 

I am neither a prophet or the son of a prophet, nor am I the 7 son of a 7th son, but I did predict at the beginning of the No Child Left Behind era that this sort of thing was inevitable. When teachers were to be judged by the performance of their students on standardized tests, and when those tests were the main measurement for the performance of a school in which that teacher taught, I knew that teachers would be getting out of the tougher schools, the tougher districts, and look for greener pastures or just wash their hands of the whole thing and walk away. In Oklahoma, we also have the problem of having just about the lowest teacher pay in the nation. We usually rank somewhere from 47 to 49 in teacher salaries while Texas' pay scales are somewhere near the middle of pack with teachers earning $8K to $10K more on average.  

We have some of the finest teacher training academies in the nation in schools like the University of Central Oklahoma, but their graduates usually go out of state to pursue their profession.  The Oklahoma City Public School District has had to go as far as recruit teachers from Spain in order to fill some vacancies.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that those teacher have struggled to deal with student behavior and are not likely to return or even finish out this year. 

This problem has come about from some very detrimental educational philosophies, particularly "blame the teacher" and "more money is not the solution."  I believe that the first one philosophy, that of saying that all that was needed to improve schools was to hire, train, and develop good teachers, is the most harmful because it blindly refuses to consider factors that are beyond any teacher's control, mainly the environment of poverty from which most of our student come.  

I have always been amazed that when critics of public education speak of the "crisis" in schools, the schools they inevitably speak of are those in the most impoverished urban areas.  Any attempt to point this out to these critics is pushed aside as "excuse making" or "refusing to take responsibility" or racism or just plain laziness on our part. A movie, Searching for Superman, was made with this philosophy at its center.  The result has been that teachers are searching for schools with a less toxic environment in which to teach, or they are leaving the profession altogether.

The problem of pay is more complex since critics can point to states with low overall pay, but whose students are high achievers.  Often these states, such as South Dakota, are primarily rural states with very low numbers of minority/majority schools. However,  most teachers I know would trade a raise in pay for a better environment with better student behavior. Few of us got into teaching for the money. We all want a place where we can practice our craft and not spend most of our time and energy managing student behavior.

This to me is the missing ingredient in dealing with low performing schools.  Today, we had a major disruption in our school when a male student assaulted a female student physically, striking her to the ground because he thought she took his phone from him.  That student, who has a right to a public education, should not be in a school classroom again.  But there is no place to put him.

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