By Mark Phillips in the Marin Independent Journal:
IT'S SUMMER break for teachers but, having read a report on the high dropout rate of California teachers, I've been wondering how many of our best ones won't return this fall. This should concern everyone committed to quality public education.
The best elementary teacher I ever observed was Steve Kay, my son's first-grade teacher in Santa Barbara. His classroom was a glorious six-ring circus, well organized, stimulating, caring and challenging. My son loved every day.
Despite being young, Steve was a legend among educators and parents. He quit teaching two years later. With a wife and two children, he couldn't afford to live in Santa Barbara on a teacher's salary and went into his dad's construction business.
I wasn't nearly as legendary, but I was a good teacher. I, too, left after a few years, in spite of loving the teens with whom I worked. My decision wasn't primarily based on the low salary, although I took a second job at a university and still ran up debts supporting a wife and two children on $29,000. I left because I felt suffocated by having no time between 8 and 4 to even collect my thoughts, frequently using the 38-minute lunch break to meet with students. And, spending hours at night and weekends reading student papers and preparing lessons, I was neglecting my family.
We all know there are teachers who should quit, some of whom don't enjoy teaching. But 18,000 California teachers quit each year and a large number of them are excellent teachers. One of the most critical challenges in public education is this loss of first-rate teachers.
The most obvious reason is pay. Spending time and money on years of education and training, knowing that you are doing excellent work in a socially critical profession, and then making less than most blue collar workers can eat away at your morale. Almost every teacher I know in the Bay Area who has a family and whose spouse is not working full time has a second job. Like Steve Kay, many finally decide they can't do it.
Many good teachers quit for other reasons. They enter the profession despite the pay because they enjoy working with kids, love their subject and want to make a contribution to society.
They quit because they find the workload and working conditions oppressive. They rarely have time for more than a five-minute break and many use their lunch break to meet with students. They work with an average of 125 students a day, many of whom are a continual challenge. Increasingly, they spend much of their time preparing students for state exams instead of focusing on what is most important and meaningful.
Although they generally receive more administrative support than teachers in most urban areas, Marin teachers are not immune from these pressures. Many also report a high level of stress related to the growing number of "at-risk" kids. More and more of these kids come from dual working families that have little time to provide the support children need. A far greater burden falls on teachers.
The combination of the increased needs of children and the increased testing and paperwork pressures of No Child Left Behind is a lethal one for many teachers. What started as exciting and meaningful work becomes overwhelmingly stressful and unfulfilling.
Inadequate funding, across all school districts in California, still places severe limitations on reducing class size and providing students with emotional support services.
Additionally, many districts are more concerned with the stigma of low test scores than they are with providing adequate support for teachers.
And while this may fall in the "so what else is new?" category, we all have to keep the pressure on our policy makers to change the low priority placed on money for public education and the high priority placed on standardized tests. Until this happens, Marin too will continue to lose many of its best teachers and the quality of education will deteriorate rather than improve.
Mark Phillips of Woodacre is a professor of secondary education at San Francisco State University.