68%: A plea for the betterment of teacher welfare

Recently, a friend of mine (not in education) asked me, “Adam, if I held a gun to your head and asked what the best way to make schools better was, what would you say?”

I told my friend that he was being too dramatic. He needn’t go to such extreme measures in eliciting my opinion. I write a blog, which is almost literally like pissing into the wind. Scratch that--I just looked it up; there is a YouTube video of a guy pissing into the wind that has 70k views and over 100 thumbs ups. Pissing into the wind has significantly better viewership than this blog. Justifiably so.

The answer I gave my friend was this: In order for us to make education better, our teachers have got to be better. Teachers, don’t throw your modestly priced laptops against a wall just yet. Let me explain.

In order for us to make education better we have to allow our teachers to be better.

Before I go too far into this, let me say that both awful and great teachers exist. My job, as a counselor, has allowed me to see schools all over the Philadelphia School District and beyond. I’ve stood in a lot of doorways.

Dead weight exists in the profession. There is more of it than there should be in such an important field. If you are a piece of this driftwood, please float downstream into another job. It would be a service to us all.

Great teachers exist too. There are folks who despite obstacles, have persisted because they value the lives of children. As my co-blogger Jason would point out, they have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night. People staying in abusive relationships for the kids isn't a new thing. Many of the teachers at my school are that teacher. Jason is that teacher. Guys like Jon Parker are that teacher. These folks are proof that all superheroes don’t wear capes. Some wear clearance rack Clarks Desert Treks.

While I could elaborate on both the driftwood and our bland-ass-shoe-wearing superheroes who will continue to persevere, this particular blog is not about either of those outliers. It is about the other 68% of teachers who fall within one standard deviation of the mean; those who have had their love of young people and teaching curbed by a system that undervalues good educators.

More often than I see driftwood or greatness in education, I see degrees of burnout. Burnout isn’t HPV; it’s not like you have it or you don’t. It happens on a continuum and begins the first day teachers enter the classroom. New teachers often work from 7am until 8pm or later like it’s a rite of passage. I dare you to tell me the difference between a first-year teacher and a naïve college student pledging a frat or sorority. I taught math for a year and slept on my desk one night, rather than travel home at 2am to get up at 5am.

Who can continue at that pace for an entire career?

The numbers tell us not very many. About 40-50% of teachers leave the profession after 5 years and teacher turnover costs schools 2 billion dollars per year. Some teachers get so disgruntled that they pay for ad space on billboards along I-95.

The rigor of the profession is something we have to pay attention to because it handicaps even the best teachers. Great teachers end up being good teachers, good teachers end up being average, and average teachers end up blaming students for their spouse not buying the right type of hummus.

I’m not saying that there aren’t highly successful teachers who are able to endure and even thrive. As I said, great teachers exist. What I am saying is that we don’t have enough, and so it makes sense that we examine a) the college to classroom pipeline and b) ways we can improve teacher welfare.  

We don’t take care of our teachers. In fact, we set them up to fail. The school day is from 7:45am-3pm or later. Teachers commonly get a 45-minute prep period and a 30-minute lunch. That means they are teaching for around 6 of the 7 hours they are at school. In the only hour they are not teaching, teachers are making copies or unhinging their jaws to ingest a lunch, so they don't fall over while explaining the quadratic formula to students in an overcrowded/under-supported classroom.

I hate burnout. It’s driven some of the most talented teachers I’ve known out of the profession into leadership positions or into the suburbs where they are at least better compensated for their efforts.

People go into education with the belief that teaching is an art form--an art form they will have time to reflect on in order to be sure they are best meeting students' needs. Education majors write at least 500 reflection papers in various colleges of education all over the country, and I would bet most haven’t had the time to reflect since.

Our standards for teachers need to remain high; in fact, they should be higher than what they currently are. But we should also afford our teachers time in their day and pay incentives consistent with the demands placed on them. We can't say we value teachers in one breath, and in the next, not provide them adequate time, resources, and money. Teacher welfare plays a major role in child-centered education and it's time we stop ignoring that.

If we are going to make education better for students, we need more great teachers.