Lesson Plans as Bureaucratic Time Wasters

Lesson plans of some form are vital. Fixation on their format is distracting. One of the ways schools frustrate new teachers is by forcing them to submit lesson plans written according to complicated templates. When teachers spend more time fretting over format than determining procedure, there is a problem.

Teachers need a destination and a route. They need to know what content or skills students must learn. They need to know their students’ abilities along with any necessary accommodations. Finally, they need some method of imparting the content or skills. This is a heap of information. The lesson plan should be a reliable way to streamline it.

The least desirable quality of a lesson plan is complexity. Ideally, the written plan should be something a substitute can follow without difficulty. The actual teacher typically shouldn’t need the plan during instruction, although using it as a guide is fine. It should be easy to use. It should read like a recipe. The plan need only be an objective, a list of materials, any accommodations, and a brief step-by-step procedure. Depending on the lesson, some assessment could be included. The key is simplicity. What it looks like shouldn’t matter, as long as it’s usable. It should be part of a sequence, but isolated lessons have a place as well.

Enter accountability. Many parents demand it. Most states demand it. Thus, schools require transparency regarding planning. Policy varies, with some schools insisting teachers post plans where students and parents can access them and others only requiring submission to administration. Perhaps students and parents should have access to daily plans, or at least to a calendar of upcoming lessons and corresponding assignments. Administrators probably should have access to these as well. Accountability measures keep teachers from slacking on planning while providing stakeholders with assurance that systematic instruction is happening.

The trouble begins when schools insist on highly detailed plans for all lessons. This isn’t practical and instead is counterproductive. Yes, any plan should include the components described earlier, but these can be stated succinctly. Confident teachers could keep these in a day planner or even on sticky notes. Making teachers write plans that include “essential questions” and “assessment anchors” often forces the stretching otherwise good ideas to fit artificial and unnecessary constructs. It also wastes teacher’s time and insults them by suggesting a lack of professional faith.

State standards aren’t inherently evil, as many education professionals suggest they are. Curriculum guides aren’t either. New teachers benefit greatly from having a scope and sequence for instruction. Some schools insist teachers take plans directly from these guides, bypassing the controversy over plans. Others require teachers to take everything in the classroom and make it fit an inflexible template. Failure to comply can lead to punitive action. School officials (and the whole of education law) tend to ignore notions of positive reinforcement.

What stings more is inconsistency. Some schools don’t require teachers to submit any kind of plans. Are teachers in these schools more dependable and less in need of supervision than those in other schools? Probably not. Are these school loosely run, chaotic messes without any form of oversight? Most often, no. The best teachers in these schools almost certainly have their own systems for planning, but no one holds a magnifying glass over them. Learning typically isn’t compromised. This is an indictment of the schools that require them.

Inequities develop within schools, too. Special education teachers might be exempt from writing and submitting plans. The rationale? They collaborate with general education teachers on accommodations, but aren’t authoring their own plans (this assumes they’re supporting students with IEPs in the general education classroom and curriculum). Additionally, these teachers are busy enough with developing IEPs, conducting progress monitoring, and other special education-specific responsibilities that exemption from planning makes sense. It doesn’t always sit well with equally busy general education teachers. When special education teachers do have to write plans, the results can be maddening. They frequently must attempt to fit scripted lessons from commercial interventions into convoluted templates meant for totally different kinds of lessons.

Colleges of education train teacher candidates to write detailed plans. This makes sense in college, as it forces these students to consider the reasons behind each decision and action in a lesson. Student teachers find themselves dumbstruck if they learn their cooperating teachers aren’t required to write plans. They might almost be relieved to end up in schools in which they must write them. Upon hire, that relief will last until around the end of the first month.

When schools require overly detailed lesson plan formats, they’re giving strained professionals one more task that mostly serves to complicate their jobs. It also suggests their judgement isn’t completely trusted. Teachers should practice their craft like someone is watching, but with confidence and pride instead of fear of reprimand. Employing sensible accountability is an asset. Making teachers grind out twenty or more multipage plans per week is a burden. Teachers shoulder enough of these.

Lesson Plans as Bureaucratic Time Wasters

A Few Thoughts on Teacher Preparation

I’ve been leery of teacher preparation since college. After a few years in the field, my sense of its potency diminished further. Surveying my career, I find myself struggling to completely support traditional teacher preparation. I’m not convinced it’s the only route that can send effective new teachers into classrooms.

Don’t think I absolutely deny the worth of teacher preparation. I acknowledge the need to equip incoming teachers with requisite skills and knowledge while filtering out candidates not fit for the classroom. Furthermore, I recognize that colleges of education manage this most of the time. My position is that teacher preparation as these colleges do it doesn’t work well enough to be considered the gilded route to the classroom.

I’ll start by speaking to my experiences. As an undergraduate, I got the foundations. The required battery of courses exposed me to the field’s history, a survey of the law, and the basics of child development. I learned some methodology. I learned about assessment. Somehow, this stretched across a few dozen credits and several years of schooling.

Despite this exposure, I was completely out of my depth when I hit the field. I hadn’t realized what I didn’t know until I was required to know it. Some of this was procedural knowledge my courses could have included. Much more of it involved surviving in the school that hired me. I can’t fault my program for not preparing me for the latter.

Having had the chance to examine other undergraduate programs, I think mine did about as well as any. I recently got to return to that program to serve as an adjunct. It’s still as thorough as programs at much more expensive schools. It has a reputation for sending strong candidates into schools. I’m not about to knock it.

The trouble is, nothing truly prepares a person for working in a school. Note how I phrased that. Teaching is but one element of being a school employee. It becomes an afterthought relatively quickly. Dealing with the day-to-day of working in a school is something that must be learned on the job. Something similar is reflected in many fields. Knowing the culture of an organization (or school) and its unspoken codes of protocol and procedure can be as critical as knowing the job (or pedagogy). Consequently, I’ve told undergraduates that most of what I knew in my second year of teaching, I learned in my first.

Further lessening the absolute impact of teacher preparation is what teachers possess from the start. A large part of what makes a teacher effective is internal. Personal organization, intuition, and fortitude are important to succeeding as a teacher. These aren’t taught. Throughout my career, I’ve watched student teachers coming from the same programs exhibit wildly different competencies. This has had to do with them, not their programs.

With on-the-job knowledge and internal prowess being so important, I have to wonder if everything that goes into a traditional teacher preparation program is necessary. I’ll share a counter-example. For years, I’d read rants from the education faithful about the evils of Teach for America. As I read about the program, I formed some doubts of my own about it. Then I met three teachers moving through TFA. None had any substantial pedagogy training. However, two out of three of them were among the most effective teachers I’d met in a decade. Interestingly, none wanted to be teachers. They were passing through on their way to something else, confirming a major criticism of TFA.

Why were those two so good? They were smart. That was all. They were smart enough to quickly figure out what worked and what didn’t without someone holding their hands through it. Though a microscopic sample, their effectiveness nearly drowned my confidence in the worth of four-year programs.

If intuition and problem-solving skills were enough for these TFA candidates to do well, what is the defense for teacher preparation? Could it be a costly scam? Is it a matter of intellectualizing the obvious for the sake of giving states, universities, and testing companies a stranglehold on licensure? I definitely thought all of this as an undergraduate. I still think some of it.

I can’t sweep aside what colleges of education do based on two people. They might have been exceptions. Simultaneously, some potentially great teachers might only bloom via a more traditionally structured program. I’d still contend such a program could be much shorter than what most colleges offer. I’d even support teachers getting a different Bachelor’s first and then getting certified as part of a Master’s program. This delays getting candidates to the field, but it might result in better prepared candidates, especially in specific subject areas.

My thoughts on it aside, teacher preparation is taking a hit. Consider online programs, emergency certifications, and charters that hire non-certified teachers. Whether or not these are improvements, I’m not surprised that cracks in the sanctity of traditional models have been exposed. Getting smart, dependable people into schools might be more critical than insisting they be trained a specific way. I can support unorthodox routes, so long as they work. My suspicion is the candidate is the more important variable than the route. Nudging might help, but I think teaching is something a person either can or can’t do. This might be my essential indictment of four-year programs along with the basis of my tentative approval of less traditional routes.

A Few Thoughts on Teacher Preparation

To Future Teachers Graduating This Month

My commencement address would be titled “Envious, But Not That Envious.”

Most colleges and universities will be wrapping up their commencement ceremonies by the time of this post. Thousands of education majors will be hitting the field in earnest, ready to wave their degrees and certificates at schools with vacancies. A few fortunate (or ambitious) types will have positions locked before graduation and will be spending the summer prepping for that petrifying first day. Many more will be scouring the market for whatever position they can find, possibly continuing the search into the fall. It’s a dizzying time for all.

I’m envious of those experiencing any of this. To specify, I’m envious of the moment they’re experiencing. Completing college feels great. Proud reflection on accomplishment mixes with the realization of being free from coursework. The word “career” still refers to a set of aspirations rather than a collection of memories. The moments that will become memories haven’t had the chance to be qualified as fond or regrettable.

Addressing the graduates directly, yes, I’m envious of the moment you’re having. Even if you end up having a second career at some point, no moment will feel quite like this one. What I’m less envious of is your fortune entering the field in its current state. I won’t spoil your moment with a diatribe about education. I will say that the dumb luck of your timing isn’t great, at least from my perspective. Based on my experiences, I’m glad I’m not entering the field right now.

This sentiment risks seeming like that of the guy in his forties lamenting the current music scene and claiming the music of his youth was “real music.” I’m sure some teacher could have pulled me aside back in 2000 and told why I was making a mistake becoming a teacher, along with how much better everything was when she started. If I would do the same today, I’d be ignoring a decade and a half worth of advancements in technology, methodology, and even accountability that have improved conditions for students and enabled the effectiveness of teachers. Echoing the jaded not only doesn’t help much, but it might not be accurate.

I have to echo it a little, though. Every aspect of getting a teaching job has become more complicated since I started. I’d like to say this helps in some way, but I’ve struggled to see how. The day-to-day of being a teacher has become more complicated as well, largely in detrimental ways. The whole of public education stands to take a hammering at a policy level, all while it’s becoming an option rather than an expectation. I promised not to rant, so I’ll stop here. Comparing my early experiences in the field with what I know teaching currently entails, I can’t say I’d want to get started in 2017.

I’m not starting this year though, dear graduates. You are. You don’t have the perspective I have. I didn’t know any better in 2000 when that crotchety teacher would’ve given me an earful about the descent of everything. Without a point of reference, you’re entering the field as though it has always been as it is. This returns my perspective to envy. I think you’re going to have a rough go of it, but you won’t know anything but this.

My hope is that each of you prospective teachers leaving the safety of college for the wilds of the field lands in a position that suits you. That might matter more than anything else right now: a strong match between personality and the culture of a work environment. If these align, wonderful. If not, be not afraid to retreat and regroup. You don’t owe some school your sanity. Don’t forget that while time might not feel like an asset at the moment, it is. I’m becoming more envious as I write this.

Best wishes Class of 2017. I hope you’re still at it in 2037.

 

To Future Teachers Graduating This Month

The Danger of True Believers

A breed of exceptional professionals stands out in schools. They announce their presence. Those around them witness them working for a greater good with a zeal that can be inspiring or troubling, depending on perspective. Educators of this breed can’t be convinced that they’re doing anything but the most important work anyone could be doing. They’re also convinced they’re the only ones doing this work right. These educators are True Believers.

Who are True Believers? These are teachers and administrators who genuinely buy generic educational rhetoric. They live by motivational posters and inspirational quotes. They believe wholeheartedly that schools are the most important change agent in any young person’s life. They believe every student can perform at grade level and can do this well. They refuse to believe any student can’t do this. Their conviction defines them.

True Believers readily subscribe to the latest in educational panaceas. They insist that macro-level policies will improve outcomes for all students, if followed with fidelity. They find a policy or a program or a methodology and dive into it, convinced this will be the answer to some issue of underperformance. They love throwing technology at any deficit while maintaining how the “old-fashioned” way of doing anything retains its merit. All along, they know they know better than anyone else does.

Often, True Believers find their work in schools to be more than a job. They invest the whole of their being into what they do. They never really stop working, filling their evenings and weekends with school business. This is admirable in many respects, except that True Believers tend to not let anyone around them forget how dedicated they are. The True Believer frequently comes off as condescending and even self-righteous. They have a mission. Anyone who isn’t on board is in the way.

Teachers might start as True Believers. Those fresh recruits with glowing eyes hit the field ready to serve students and to be that change agent. The realities of the field smash many of these new teachers back into the surf like a salty, frigid wave. Others make it past the breakers and end up thriving in the chop. The survivors remain for their reasons, chiefly their belief in a mission. Importantly, many stick around long enough to become administrators.

Actually, a disproportionate number of administrators are True Believers. The True Believer tends to be ambitious, so aspiring to administration makes sense. Administration can appear to be the most efficient avenue for implementing change. A True Believer isn’t likely to see administration at the building level as being akin to middle management. Instead, a True Believer will see it as a genuine leadership opportunity. When thwarted by the practical frustrations of managing schools, True Believers sometimes make their way to district level administrative positions.

The trouble with True Believers really begins when they wield power. Prior to that, they’re merely insufferable. When they have the opportunity to take the rhetoric to which they subscribe and subject everyone else to it, they can unwittingly do some damage. They become inflexible and insistent. They adopt a “no excuses” model and attach this to everything. They see success as the end goal of education and they define success by narrow, quantifiable measures. The worst is that they see their brand of “no excuses” or “zero tolerance” or whatever as the recipe for fixing all issues. They expect to fix these issues within the span of a school year, even though no one else has figured out how to fix them in 60 or 70 years. Plus, they’re fully prepared to blame teachers when everything falls apart. Their version of leadership ends up being divisive and leads to low morale.

The lofty expectations of True Believers undermine their goals. They want all students to achieve at high levels. However, they use the least helpful means of targeting students who struggle to do this. The students they attack most often are students with IEPs. Like it or not, these tend to be the lowest performing and worst behaved students. True Believers have a nasty panache for suspending these students and pressing for their failure. Administrators sometimes fear taking any action against students with IEPs, but True Believers frequently show contempt and disregard for the protections these students receive. They want to extend “no excuses” policies in the face of federal law, thinking of themselves as truth-seekers in the process. In doing so, they reveal how silly the concept of “no excuses” really is.

No one can talk with True Believers about the possibility of anything being beyond the control of a school. Suggesting something is outside the scope of what a school can handle is seen as an attack on their faith. Because of this, they end up supporting legislative mandates that heap unrealistic responsibilities on school staff. This makes True Believers unwitting enemies of other school employees. They also set themselves up for bitterness. When their schools continue to underperform, they become incensed, ready to blame the faithless around them for the failures of students. Worse than this is when they misinterpret anomalies in data as evidence of their coveted policies finally working. It reinforces their beliefs even when the slightest examination would prove their policies didn’t in fact affect the results. Again, they can’t be convinced otherwise.

True Believers are more than vain and annoying. They’re indeed dangerous. They’re least harmful in the classroom, but even at this level they can be exhausting as colleagues. As building administrators, they force their unrealistic visions and end up marginalizing the students who most need their support. When they get the opportunity to be policy makers, their insistence and commitment to canned rhetoric lead to their investment in ideas that undermine what teachers are trying to do. Even if their policies have little effect, they still can inflict their will as ratings officers. Think about working under someone who will never believe he or she could be wrong about anything. Dealing with the True Believer in power can end up being the most tiring part of working in a school.

The Danger of True Believers

The Arrogance of Insisting We Love What We Do

This spring, I was having a conversation with a colleague about my career choices. I candidly shared with her how much I disliked what I’d been doing every day for several consecutive years. Her face decomposed to a frown as I spoke. She listened with quiet concern as I explained how little interest I had in my prospects for a new job. While I didn’t think I’d like any of them, I figured I’d end up taking one for the sake of maintaining an income. This upset her. With a look of pity in her eyes, she remarked, “Oh Jeff, you have to love what you do.” What an arrogant sentiment.

Most people in America and around the rest of the world don’t love what they do. I’d suggest roughly half don’t even like what they do. If anything, they’re grateful just to have the opportunity to have something to do in exchange for pay. The best most people can do is to hope to find something tolerable. Simply not hating a job is enough for many. Insisting people love their job is dismissive of the millions of Americans and billions of people worldwide who have no such opportunity to do what they really want to do.

This idea of loving what we do is a spoiled, middle-class American concept. Some of it stems from the years of having parents, teachers, and inspirational posters tell us to follow our dreams. The rest comes from a particular conception of what work is. Rather than a means to an end—a way to support one’s existence— some aspire to make it the end itself. For this somewhat elitist minority, work is a calling. It might be something they believe in or some attempt at personal accomplishment, but it becomes more than just work for them. It becomes what they do, not just what they do for a living. The truth is, decidedly few people have lives like this.

Finding a job to love assumes chasing dreams actually will result in something worthwhile. Sometimes this works. Stories circulate about it working. People get swept up in success stories. These are meant to inspire, but they’re significant because they’re rare. They’re the uncanny ammunition of motivational speakers. A person might dream of writing for a living until the reality of working tirelessly to earn maybe $5000 per year crushes that dream. The same goes for dozens of vocations people chase out of idealistic fantasy rather than practical need. How many people really fulfill their desire to do what they want to do? For that matter, how many people find work they even slightly enjoy doing? Yes, examples exist of those who do. The counter-examples are more plentiful, just less celebrated.

This insistence regarding self-fulfillment and vocational bliss is the arrogant part. People who enjoy their acquired stations often look down in not-so-quiet resentment at those who aren’t satisfied with their lot. A tendency to cast blame exists. Those who have found some kind of coveted occupational actualization might think people who aren’t happy should do something about their unhappiness. The dissatisfied should push to improve their situation and if they don’t, they only have themselves to blame.

Exerting effort isn’t always a recipe for success, though. Plenty of people work hard and make all the prescribed moves, but still fail to find satisfaction in their careers. It isn’t necessarily their fault. At the same time, a great many of those who are content with what they have actually lucked into their circumstances. Those who have what they want too often view what they have as an accomplishment rather than a windfall, just as often as those who do not tend to blame circumstance for their shortcomings.

Beyond ideological exchanges between haves and have-nots, there remains that insistence. Do people really need to enjoy their work? Is work about enjoyment? Isn’t it more about securing a living and supporting the balance of our endeavors? The goal seems like it should be finding something we’re able to do in exchange for pay, not necessarily something we love doing. Matching this with personality is a bonus. Matching it with lifelong aspirations is wishful thinking.

Certainly, spending too much of life working a detestable job would be bad for one’s health. If a distressing job detracts too much from quality of life, quit. No one owes so much to any endeavor to continue laboring for it in spite of personal wellbeing. A gulf lies between not liking work and actively hating it. Everyone is entitled to walk away if necessary.

Most jobs aren’t that bad, though. They might not be satisfying or meaningful, but they usually aren’t unbearable. We typically can go through the motions without much incident. Sure, doing something somewhat enjoyable would be preferred. But how much should we emphasize this in our search for work? What about those who lack the skills to do much more than the most menial jobs? Should they be held to this standard of having to hold a job they love? Can we expect that everyone will find something fulfilling to do?

The notion isn’t based on most people’s reality. It overemphasizes the fortunate individual and is part of a self-indulgence that is one of the least flattering aspects of people born since the mid-to-late 20th Century. Maybe people subscribing to this notion aren’t anymore at fault for doing so than those they criticize for not taking more initiative. I can’t help but think the people who embrace this fantasy are out-of-touch with how the majority of people live. The sentiment might not be arrogant. It might be naïve.

The Arrogance of Insisting We Love What We Do

Teachers Who Quit Shouldn’t Feel Guilty

I’m a quitter. Rather than feeling ashamed about this, I recognize the trait as a survival adaptation. Several times, I’ve been able to admit when the balance between income and wellbeing has tipped in the wrong direction. A person doesn’t have to love his or her job, but that person shouldn’t hate his or her job, either. Some work environments are poor enough to make leaving justifiable, even if doing this means giving up a steady paycheck or abandoning responsibilities. In special education, I’m far from alone in realizing this.

Twice I’ve walked away from my chosen field. I nearly walked away while still an undergraduate. Irrationally, I went ahead and started a career despite my apprehension. I didn’t find enough of that inspiration some take from each day spent working with students. My days working in schools dissolved my dignity. The field found one way after another to wear at my will. I suppose working in the classroom yielded some encouraging moments, but these were countered by disappointments. If the classroom deflated me somewhat, working in administration took years off my life. A sad truth I uncovered was that matter how hard I worked, results were the same. I had to accept that staying around wasn’t going to make anything better. It was going to continue making me miserable, though.

I was able to walk away each time because I didn’t feel an obligation to stay that was more powerful than the push I felt to leave. To be fair, I had the financial stability to be able to fearlessly quit. Not everyone has this. Some who continue only stay because they can’t afford the risk of leaving. Aside from this advantage, I recognized that any obligation to stay only existed in my head. This was a critical realization I’d like to pass to others who press on without regard for the numerous signs telling them to stop.

Teachers, whether on the cusp of leaving a position or the field as a whole, need to understand that they don’t owe anyone anything. They might feel they do because of connections with students or with a community. This is understandable, but a few points are important here. First, a person’s own mental health should be the priority. No one will be much help to anyone else if overcome by depression or anxiety exasperated by work-induced stress. Getting out with mental health intact is crucial to quality of life. Next, if a teacher chooses to leave, someone else will be along to pick up the slack. This happens all the time. Colleagues are used to it. Students are used to it. Everyone is replaceable. The belief that any individual is irreplaceable is foolish. Schools move on with or without specific team members. Finally, if a teacher leaves one school for another, there always will be new students to teach and communities to serve. Connections can be made elsewhere. As much as everyone would like to believe otherwise, educational professionals are movable parts in a larger machine.

With all that established, this notion of owing anything must be dismissed. In this field, people tend to dress up teaching as a more than just a job. It can be (and maybe should be if it’s to be done effectively), but at its essence, it isn’t different than anything else anyone does for money. A teaching position is an agreement between a trained professional and school to render services provided to students in exchange for pay and medical benefits. That’s it. After contractual requirements are completed, nothing is owed, at least not in an absolute sense. Teachers might feel they owe something more and might experience genuine anguish at the thought of fleeing their posts, but I would refer them to the preceding paragraph.

Quitting certainly has repercussions. On the school’s end, resources are strained in the search for a replacement. Former colleagues might have to assume some of the deserter’s previous role. For students, stability is upended. The quality of instruction could suffer under a succession of substitutes. For the teacher who quits, a departure could be a dark spot on a resume. It definitely brings a disruption in income, savings, and benefits. It might even represent a personal failure for some.

These practical ramifications are tough to ignore, especially those that impact finances. Hesitance is understandable. Teachers need to overcome the guilt, though. Anyone who leaves any job causes a rift. This rift gets repaired in every other field just as it does in education. The teacher who feels guilt over leaving might be artificially inflating his or her importance. Some teachers who quit do leave quite a void, but again, the educational wheel keeps turning without them.

Instead of focusing on the negative effects of leaving, teachers who feel they’ve had enough should consider the negative effects of staying. Teachers need not be martyrs. If any teacher is taking too severe a psychological beating by trying to tough it out, that teacher needs to consider getting out. When the tolls associated with staying outweigh the overall fallout of leaving, teachers need to drop the guilt and just go. Too many burned out teachers stick around past the point of effectiveness. Quitting isn’t a crime. It might be the best decision a struggling teacher can make. The business of education will continue in the absence of any one teacher. Life will continue for that teacher, too (and might be better for it).

Teachers Who Quit Shouldn’t Feel Guilty

A Refresher on Urban School Staff Turnover

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.

A Refresher on Urban School Staff Turnover