Commentary: Why teachers are burning out — reimagining the American education system
Guest Contributors | August 22, 2016
By Jane Mayer and Jesse Soza, Ed.D.
This is the second in a five-article series about teacher sustainability in Los Angeles and California public schools and the available solutions to reversing teacher turnover. Read the first article here.
Teacher turnover, otherwise known as burnout, is a multi-faceted and complex problem currently plaguing the public education system in our country. And it’s one that hits relatively close to home. Education is a unifying element of American society—we’re hard-pressed to find many institutions that have influenced the lives of every citizen.
Because there are approximately 3.5 million to 5.5 million teachers in our country, which amounts to 1-2 percent of the population (reports vary based on categorization of administration, grade levels, etc.) almost everyone knows and loves a teacher. And 40-50 percent of them are leaving our schools within five years of entering, unable to sustain careers within the current education system.
On the whole, teachers are passionate, compassionate, innovative and intelligent members of our society. Ask any teacher why he or she got into teaching, and almost everyone will give you some variation of wanting to mentor young people, pass along a passion for a subject, serve the way a childhood teacher had served him, or—in no uncertain terms, “change the world.” No one gets into teaching because of the prestige, the easy work or the money. Teachers go into teaching because they are called—and because they have a vision of themselves as change agents in the world.
So, the question becomes (and rightly so, as pointed out by several comments on the first article), why are these passionate, committed and bright people, who set out to serve our communities, leaving at such astounding rates?
The knee-jerk response often revolves around poor salaries, though the answer isn’t as simple as giving people a raise (but with a national starting salary of $35,672, raises wouldn’t hurt). There are places in our country where the increased cost of living dramatically outpaces teacher salaries (like Los Angeles and San Francisco) and actually dissuades people from becoming teachers at all.
But despite pay, many of our nation’s teachers would happily continue working in schools if other conditions that lead to burnout were changed. And the other good news is that there are concrete and effective ways to address the conditions that are driving our teachers out of classrooms across this state and our country.
So, back to the question at hand—if it’s not simply money, why are they leaving?
Richard Ingersoll, one of the foremost experts on teacher attrition and a former teacher himself, reflected on this question personally in an interview with The Atlantic: “‘One of the big reasons I quit was sort of intangible,’ Ingersoll says. ‘But it’s very real: It’s just a lack of respect. Teachers in schools do not call the shots. They have very little say. They’re told what to do; it’s a very disempowered line of work.'”
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.
Unfortunately, the educational system we have today is not set up to honor teachers as experts—and it actually prevents them from speaking their voices, experiencing personal power and having agency to affect change. Complicated federally mandated testing, district-mandated behavior systems and ineffective school-wide policies affect every teacher in every classroom. 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.
Of course, not every teacher feels this way. Ten percent (as there are always outliers in any field or profession) thrive despite the conditions that are currently present on many school campuses. Some actually prefer to work in isolation, which is one of the warning signs of imminent burnout. But data around burnout show that most teachers cannot thrive in the system as it stands today.
Giving teachers voice, power and agency is not a simple fix. It requires us to fundamentally change the way educators relate to one another and the system. As much as we want to, we cannot change the system through new legislation, new standards or new protocols. It must come from individuals changing their perspectives and deciding that one of the largest workforces in America is worthy of being trusted and empowered.
In the next three articles, we’ll discuss three pivotal points (see diagram: The Tension Between Alienation and Empowerment) that make the difference between teachers staying and teachers leaving. The goal of the framework is to identify conditions that don’t work (and what it looks like for an individual teacher to be battling that condition) and provide concrete solutions for actual change that can be implemented today, without any petitions, laws or governmental votes.
Below are three conditions that undergird the reasons that teachers are leaving our classrooms at a staggering rate alongside a quick overview of the related solution pathway:
1. Feeling powerless—and that your work is meaningless. This challenge will be discussed in detail in the next article, but many teachers currently feel completely powerless to affect change. For teachers, whose mission is change, powerlessness begets meaninglessness. In order for teachers to stay in the classroom, we have to provide them with spaces where their voices are heard and they are part of a meaningful dialogue around education, their work and the overall school community of which they are a part. This includes allowing and encouraging teachers to become aware of their stress levels and physical and mental health—and actively giving them spaces to discuss their work—both challenges and successes. This means providing spaces for uncomfortable conversations—but without aware teachers who can speak their voices, school sites will continue to battle turnover.
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. Teachers feel unheard and disregarded—and the sting is even stronger because they are the ones constantly self-sacrificing for the sake of students. We need to provide systems on school campuses where teacher voice is one of the largest guiding forces in creating and maintaining norms on campuses. This will ultimately empower them and keep them engaged in both their communities and their visions of themselves as teachers.
3. Feeling isolated. When teachers aren’t heard and they aren’t empowered, they start to disengage from the system. They start isolating—they no longer engage in meaningful collaboration or community conversation, and they often either find themselves at odds with administration or with themselves. Addressing this factor, which comes as a result of the previous two, means creating an even stronger authentic community. Teachers want to be a part of a healthy, thriving school site where they are, as a team, positively influencing the lives of youth—and isolation as a result of meaninglessness and disempowerment prevents this from happening. Ironically, it is allowing space for voice and dialogue alongside the collective constructive of norms, which actually creates stronger communities, not the current “top-down” models of leadership we see in our education system today.
Ultimately, when teachers realize that they must choose between themselves and their schools, many of them leave. If we intend to re-engage them in our educational system (and in reality, they are the educational system), we must create spaces where they are allowed to have voice, power and agency. We must respect them as servants of our communities and as experts in their fields, and remove all of the systemic barriers that prevent us from doing so.
Jane Mayer is a former LAUSD and charter school teacher in Los Angeles. She currently directs the Los Angeles region of a nonprofit organization, The Teaching Well, committed to transforming education by prioritizing teacher well-being and sustainability.
Jesse Soza, Ed.D., is a former 12-year teacher. His dissertation on the origins of teacher turnover and dissatisfaction was nominated for a Carnegie Award for Distinguished Education Dissertation. He currently consults with schools and districts about how to reform systems to ensure teacher sustainability.
Please continue to follow this series in order to dive into a deeper understanding of how school sites can address these issues and transform the work environment for our city’s teachers.