Articles about urban education tend to have a negative tone. Writers relay the sorry state of schools or attack the funding structures that contribute to these sorry states. Rarely do writers come forth with good news from schools in cities. Many use expressions such as “the trenches” or “the front lines” to describe classrooms. The analogies might be exaggerated, but the sentiment is telling. This sentiment hints at a plain but frustrating set of answers to a simple but persistent question: why do urban schools bleed staff?
Everyone in the field knows this is a problem. Popular understanding of the problem isn’t as ubiquitous. The people it affects most—students and parents—might understand it the least. Older students often think they know, but they sometimes assume the most obvious reasons are the only reasons. They might not have enough information to realize the deeper issues. Parents might have a better idea, but might not want to acknowledge the reasons. However, they get reminded of the effects every fall when their children return to school to meet the ten teachers who replaced those who left the previous spring. Meanwhile, teachers and administrators are closer to the causes, although they often see their own circumstances rather than any wider phenomena.
The reasons, for readers who don’t already know, are as follows. The order of importance will vary for the individual teachers who flee, but one of the most common reasons is pay. Urban schools often start new teachers at rates that are competitive with neighboring suburban districts. They need to do this to attract recruits. After just a few years, most of these urban schools no longer can keep pace with what neighboring districts offer. Money can make the decision for new teachers looking to pay off loans, buy homes, and start families. Closely related is support for professional development, specifically tuition reimbursement. Urban schools rarely offer as much assistance with paying for continuing education as suburban schools do. This is crucial for new teachers seeking additional credits or degrees needed to maintain certification. It also helps in schools that offer higher salaries to those teachers with more education. Benefits are less often cited as a reason, but in urban schools that face frequent labor disputes, teachers can get tired of the push and pull. The increased likelihood of staff cuts and associated instability also makes teachers nervous enough to want to leave preemptively. Finally, where residency restrictions don’t apply, teachers quite often choose to live outside the cities in which they teach. This becomes more likely the higher up the salary scale they climb. Traveling into the city everyday starts to become a bother. If a job closer to home opens, teachers tend to jump on it.
After these highly practical and undeniably concrete reasons, teachers look at some intangibles. Teaching in the suburbs has a lure to it, or perhaps a perceived lack of disadvantages. Urban schools face magnified versions of the ills other schools face, along with some ills unique to them. The mythos is that these magnified and unique ills vanish in suburban schools. They don’t completely, but resources usually aren’t as strained and student needs typically aren’t as severe. Less specific is this nebulous idea of becoming “damaged goods” in the eyes of potential employers. The fear is that principals of suburban schools will have such a negative opinion of urban schools that they’ll view any teacher having come from one as being unworthy of consideration. An assumption precedes urban teachers that they’ve learned bad habits and haven’t picked up and good ones while in any urban school position. This leads to a fear among urban teachers of getting trapped by staying too long.
Other reasons related to conditions within the schools have nearly as much weight. Parents don’t like to hear about these, but denying these exist is nothing short of delusional. Working in urban schools is particularly exhausting. All the tribulations of striving in poorly funded schools with disproportionately needy students taxes the will. Teachers might really want to continue pressing on for their students, but the students don’t always make this appealing. While students can’t rightly be blamed, some of them bring caustic emotional baggage to school that manifests as behaviors that are perfectly incongruent to anything productive. This doesn’t describe a majority, but the minority is too distressed and distressing to ignore. The number of emotionally imbalanced students is disproportionate. Many have mental illnesses and related emotional needs teachers simply aren’t qualified to contend with. At the same time, many of these students have underdeveloped skills that appear to stagnate despite all efforts to address them. Trying to make headway amid all this eventually drains. Neighboring districts have their own needy students, but usually not to the same degree or in such high incidence. The climate in schools with so much concentrated human dysfunction can get the better of teachers, especially when supports are lacking. Few teachers like to admit this in surveys and exit interviews, but maladjusted students often inspire their flight to the suburbs.
Inadequate pay and the funding structures behind it contribute to turnover, just as difficult students and the systemic problems in their communities do. Another unheralded contributor is the quality of teachers coming to urban schools. The best young teachers aren’t all clamoring to teach in depressed inner cities. Urban schools too often get teachers who couldn’t find work elsewhere. This is an unfair generalization, as many outstanding new teachers come to urban schools every year. So do some lousy ones. Urban schools can’t be as picky as other schools if they wish to fill vacancies. This influences their willingness to bring in teachers in varying states of certification. These teachers might turn out to be wonderful, but they start in a noteworthy deficit.
All this piles up on urban teachers. As it does, don’t forget that urban schools face all the same hurdles other schools face regarding adherence to standards and emphasis on state assessments. Some argue these disproportionately affect urban schools. Teachers lament this everywhere, so it’s just one more factor opening the exit door for urban teachers. These are large-scale factors. Urban teachers also die a little each day as they feel the nitty-gritty effects of budget constraints. The copier is broken again. There’s no toilet paper in the staff bathroom. We have to move our class to the auditorium because the heater is broken in the classroom. No subs are available today, so a few of us lose our preps to cover classes. Groan.
Combining it all, no one should be surprised that after two, three, maybe five years urban teachers cease to be urban teachers. They leave. Some leave the field, while others seek supposedly greener educational pastures. How many former urban teachers talk about how that city school in which they used to teach was a great place to work? True, they’re biased because they left, but they still left. The number leaving says more about the schools than about the teachers. We should celebrate those who stay—their dedication, their drive, and their endurance. We really shouldn’t blame those who leave, though. They signed up for it, but knowing the scope of what they’ve signed up for is tricky at the start. Feeling it is something else entirely.