Why U.S. Public School Teachers Are Leaving the Profession for Good
Typically, low salaries are blamed for high teacher turnover in the U.S. But as somebody who has been teaching in public education for almost twenty years, I can tell you that when it comes to reasons educators quit, low salaries are low on the totem pole.
After all, don't you think most of them know what their salary will be before they go into the profession? Of course they do.
The main reasons teachers walk away from their jobs is because of the poor working conditions, unreasonable demands, and unrealistic expectations they face every day. Collectively, these factors make the teaching profession unbearable for even the best educators.
1. They don’t have time to use the bathroom.
Teachers often have to wait two, three, or more hours to use the bathroom. They obviously can't step out of their classroom when students are there, so they have to wait until their planning period or lunch break to relieve themselves.
Urinary tract infections are common among educators.
Moreover, there are usually a handful or fewer faculty restrooms within a school building, so finding an available restroom once they can leave the classroom is the next hurdle.
With fifty or more staff members in each school building, many teachers end up using student restrooms out of necessity.
When educators use student restrooms at the middle and high school levels, they often discover inappropriate student activity going on, which they of course must address, which prevents them from using the john.
I assure you that no staff member wants to use a student restroom! But we often have no choice.
2. Teachers are tired of bad student behavior.
They're tired of being disrespected by students and of the same students continually disrupting class. The worst part is when we call home and parents tell us they deal with the same behavior issues at home and don't know what to do about it.
In addition, educators feel pressured to not send students to the office. Administrators want us to handle student behavior problems in the classroom.
Principals are obligated to report their yearly number of office referrals to their district supervisors, and this information impacts their school ratings and image. This understandably puts a lot of pressure on administrators.
However, high teacher turnover can't do much good for the school's image, either.
The truth is, many teachers just keep allowing their students to act out in the classroom, disrupt learning, and be disrespectful because they have run out of options.
Educators who do write office referrals when they’ve exhausted all their options are often looked down upon or blackballed by the same administrators who should be supporting them.
3. They don't have enough planning time.
Teacher planning time is often consumed by meetings. We are often asked to attend staff, grade-level, or special education meetings during our planning block.
This is supposed to be planning time, which means time to create awesome lessons for class instruction!
We usually end up planning our lessons on our own time—after school and/or on weekends.
However, many educators can't devote their personal time to school lessons due to family commitments and second jobs. This means their lessons aren't as amazing as they could be, and it's not their fault.
Sure, we get our summers off and breaks during the school year, but if you add up all the hours most of us work outside of our contract time through the course of each school year, it more than balances out.
According to the Wall Street Journal, U.S. public education employees had the fastest resignation rate in 2018 since the Department of Labor began its measurements in 2001.
Have you considered resigning from your teaching job?
4. Teachers get bullied by their students.
We all know about students bullying students, and even educators bullying students, but how about students bullying teachers?
It's not uncommon for educators to be ridiculed, insulted, and harassed by their own students.
Many staff members don’t report it because they’re concerned it could make things worse for them. They’re afraid nobody will believe them or that others will think they somehow encouraged or deserved it.
Many also feel incredibly embarrassed about it. So they just suck it up, continue with instruction and pretend it’s not even happening.
5. They are constantly asked for money.
Teachers are routinely asked to donate money to support their underprivileged students, such as help pay for their utility bills, contribute to the student holiday shopping fund, or bring in food for families in need.
In addition, they're asked to contribute to the school’s hospitality fund for staff parties and other events, and to help with meals for staff members who are unable to work due to poor health or a family emergency.
There are envelopes constantly going around asking for contributions for this or that.
Some of us are living paycheck to paycheck ourselves and even have second jobs to help make ends meet. We want to help our students and colleagues but we wish our schools would stop asking us for money we don’t have.
6. Instruction is in constant competition with school programs.
There are a ton of school activities competing with instruction every single day.
Announcements throughout the school day bombard educators and students with information about clubs, sports, programs and events such as spirit week, which may, for example, include wearing a different outfit each day of the week.
Often these announcements are made in the middle of class which disrupts the flow of our lessons and even leads to behavior problems.
Although many of these activities are positive and promote good causes, they are highly distracting to both students and teachers during instructional time.
Teachers often feel like they're working in a five ring circus.
We want to just focus on instruction, but we don’t dare complain because it goes back to the pressure schools are under to get high ratings and maintain a good image, and the number of programs schools offer to students is a big part of that image.
Many parents want to send their kids to schools where there are a ton of activities, so administrators do their best to comply.
It’s sink or swim for most of us. Many educators are on medication for stress and anxiety. Others are retiring early or changing careers.
I have compared the systematic expectations of the [teaching] profession to the list of signs of abuse provided by the Domestic Abuse Hotline. If you replace "he" with "public education," it would almost match perfectly with what we are going through all across America.— former South Carolina teacher Sariah McCall, in her resignation letter, Sept. 2018
7. They are asked to take on too many roles.
Teachers feel pressured by administrators to be not only an instructor, but in many cases a parent, social worker, and psychologist—to name just a few roles—to each of their students.
We are also constantly pressured to join school committees, sponsor clubs, and help supervise after-school events. All of these activities usually take place outside of our contract hours, and in many cases we are not paid for our time.
This year the counseling department in my school is trying to recruit teacher volunteers to mentor students during our 30 minute lunch block. Come again? Since my planning block is already consumed by meetings throughout the week, my lunch block is the only solid plan time I can count on. It's also one of the few opportunities I have to decompress during the school day, and I have to somehow manage to eat at some point during that time.
Educators go to work to teach and many do it with full devotion. We go in early and stay late. We plan lessons and grade papers for hours after school and on weekends.
While we care about our students, we cannot wear all these hats. Please stop asking us to because you are literally burning us out.
8. Keeping students engaged keeps getting harder.
We are constantly having to work harder to maintain our students’ attention in the classroom.
Students' attention spans keep getting shorter. Educators are competing against video games and all kinds of highly stimulating technology kids are engaged in for long periods of time outside of school.
We keep having to make lessons more fun, more lively, more exciting, and our lessons seem to keep getting shorter because many kids simply can’t stay focused for longer than 10 minutes at a time.
We also have to constantly learn the latest fun online educational programs, which seem to change all too frequently. Just as we thought we mastered the current one, there's a "newer and better" one (or two, or three) we're expected to pick up.
Many of us feel that we have to practically sing and dance just to keep our students' attention. What's worse is that we feel our students expect to be entertained daily when they come to class.
A Callout to Administrators
Giving every teacher her own desk and her own classroom is acknowledging and respecting her most essential needs as an educator. Purchase trailers if you must, but give each teacher the space she deserves. Your teachers are your greatest asset.
9. They have to share their classrooms and desks with other teachers.
Due to the shortage of space in many schools, an increasing number of teachers have to share their classrooms, and even their desks, with their colleagues.
How does this work?
Floating educators use their colleagues’ classrooms to teach during their colleagues' planning time. This means these teachers have to leave their rooms during their planning period and find somewhere else to work.
It’s not uncommon for host teachers to return to their classroom to find student desks have been rearranged or the room has been left in shambles.
Sure, there’s normally a verbal agreement between the host teacher and the floater as to how the room will be left, but it’s not always honored.
Room and desk sharing is highly stressful for educators and often causes resentfulness between them.
Host teachers resent having to be kicked out of their classroom during their planning periods and they resent finding their rooms a mess when they return.
Floaters resent the fact that they don’t even have their own classroom and that they have to adjust to different classrooms throughout the day.
10. Teachers bully teachers.
So we talked about students bullying teachers. There's also a big, unspoken problem with bullying among educators, and it’s getting worse.
Classroom sharing—as shared earlier—is a breeding ground for colleagues bullying one another.
Some floaters deliberately leave the classrooms they use untidy if they resent that the host teacher has complained about things not being in order after the floater has used her room.
Host teachers may retaliate by disabling technology or hiding important equipment or materials the floater needs when she uses her room.
I have seen all of these things happen.
And we wonder why so many students bully students. In many cases, they are picking up these bully attitudes from their own teachers!
Co-teaching, a common instructional approach in recent years, also often leads to educators mistreating one another.
11. They're not allowed to give failing grades.
We are told to not penalize students when they don’t turn their work in.
That’s right. In many school districts, teachers are prohibited from giving students failing grades for missing assignments.
The theory behind this is that since we haven’t seen the student’s work, we cannot evaluate it. An F can only be assigned if the quality of the assignment meets the criteria for an F, not for assignments that haven’t been submitted.
Most educators are very uncomfortable with this approach, as it doesn’t teach students to be responsible.
We know that once our students move on beyond school and get jobs, failing to perform a project for their boss in a timely manner could cost them their job, or—at the very least—a poor job evaluation.
We know that it’s important to teach students that there are consequences for their actions.
But if our administrators tell us to not penalize our students for work they don’t turn in, we are obligated to do that or we put our own jobs on the line.
12. Students are coming to school increasingly unprepared to learn.
They Lack Basic Academic Skills
More and more students are entering our classrooms each year without basic academic skills in reading, writing and math. Meanwhile, academic standards are increasing at each grade level. This means that the performance gap between where students are currently functioning and where they are expected to be is widening.
Consequently, educators have to work harder to bring these students up to grade level standards. With class sizes getting larger across the nation, the pressure teachers are under to bring their growing number of lower performing students "up to par" can at times seem overwhelming.
Their Basic Needs Aren't Being Met
In addition, more and more students are entering our classrooms with unmet basic needs such as food, sleep, and nurturing. It's not uncommon for students to ask their teachers for food because they're hungry, or to fall asleep in class because they're sleeping on the floor at home and are sometimes even sleeping in the same room as the rest of their family.
We are seeing an increase in students whose parents abuse drugs and cannot properly care for their children. Many of our students have been removed from their families and live in foster homes; others are homeless and are living in shelters.
The physical, mental and emotional stress many of our students experience outside of school inevitably impacts not just their academic achievement but also their behavior in the classroom. Indeed, many students who act out in class are facing great difficulties in their personal lives.
This creates greater challenges for educators.
What is accreditation?
Accreditation is a process by which schools or entire school districts in each state are certified as having achieved minimum standards of quality.
13. There is too much pressure to teach to the test.
Because schools can lose their accreditation due to low standardized test scores, there is a tremendous amount of pressure on educators to "teach to the test." This means not just focusing strictly on teaching content that aligns with grade level standards, but also spending a lot of time teaching our students test-taking strategies.
Some districts even utilize a teacher merit pay model which means their teacher salaries are based on their students' standardized test scores.
Schools that are at particular risk of losing state accreditation are those with a high percentage of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds and English language learners. The academic gap between where these students are functioning and what is considered "grade-level" is much greater for these students than it is for those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds.
Some problems with excessive focus on standardized test scores:
- It puts too much emphasis on one test on one given day of the school year.
- Many grade-level state standards are not developmentally appropriate for many students at that grade level.
- It creates a school culture of competition rather than collaboration among educators.
- It creates a great amount of stress for teachers and students.
- It puts underprivileged students at a disadvantage.
14. School Violence
Schools are becoming increasingly unsafe places to work. Many teachers already experience high levels of stress just trying to stay afloat and meet the ever-growing demands of the profession. To have to worry daily about their own safety and that of their students adds a whole new dimension to this anxiety.
It's not unusual for students to come to class with concealed knives or other weapons, to break out into fights in the classroom, to kick or throw heavy items across the room, or to threaten to hurt themselves and others.
In addition, schools are soft targets for mass shootings. The most concerning aspect of this is that there is very little being done to protect students and school personnel from this senseless violence. Despite the numerous school shootings that have occurred across our country, most schools don't have metal detectors or any other kinds of screenings in place to prevent armed individuals from entering their buildings.
Although schools usually have a resource officer present in the building during school hours, how much protection can he provide to thousands of students and staff after a shooter has already entered the building?
15. Teachers are told to just go with the flow.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of being a public school educator today is the “Just Do It” mentality that permeates public education.
Teachers feel pressured to shut up, keep smiling and keep going.
Catch-phrases such as “Keep Calm and Carry On” are constantly tossed around in public education.
These flippant slogans condition us to accept our circumstances as if we are doing something heroic rather than running against common sense and against what is best for their students.
But we know that to speak out means putting our jobs on the line, and we have bills to pay and families to support. Many of us have kids in college and need to save toward our retirement.
We are caught in a self-defeating system.
It’s no wonder many educators are retiring early or changing careers.
Unfortunately, for many other teachers, it’s too late to switch careers or they can't afford to retire early.
It’s easier for Americans to talk about poor teacher salaries than to focus on a very broken public education system. But unless teachers' working conditions improve and the expectations and demands placed on them become more reasonable, we will continue to see droves of good and quality educators leave the profession. This impacts teachers, students, and taxpayers, as recruiting and training new educators costs school districts across the U.S. billions of dollars every year.
© 2019 Madeleine Clays