Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Trouble with Teacher Testimony

A highly-publicized study released last month by Cal State Sacramento's Center for Teacher Quality emphasizes that working conditions, not money, are the most crucial determinants for teachers who leave or plan to leave the profession. As reported in the LA Times on Friday April 27, here's the Top Ten, generated via online surveys of nearly 2,000 teachers:
  • Bureaucratic interference
  • Poor support from districts
  • Low staff morale
  • Lack of resources
  • Unsupportive principals
  • Poor compensation
  • Too little decision-making authority
  • Too little time for planning
  • Accountability pressures
  • Lack of teamwork.
If you teach and work hard at your job, none of these reasons surprises or shocks you. And yet there you are: still showing up on time every morning, writing your standards and Bloom's Levels of Thinking on the white board, grabbing your quick sandwich or granola bar at lunch, heading to the Schlechty or PLC training after school, and going home to grade papers, call parents, and plan new lessons.

What's intriguing about this study, and others like it, is how it leaves several premises uninterrogated. One is subtle, a suggestion that when a profession retains its workers, all must be well. If we could only get teachers to stay longer! It certainly may be true that bad conditions provide incentives for workers to leave, but the fact that workers don't switch professions does not necessarily mean conditions are great. Think: coal miners, ER techs, data entry workers, people at Wal Mart. And yeah, think parents who stay together for the sake of the kids.

An assumption related to the above premise is that those who stay mostly do so because their conditions are better than the leavers' conditions. This begs the question about why it takes an exodus of teachers to generate a modicum of interest in the teacher's job. The fact that we mostly wring our hands over "the ones who got away" may reveal deeper attitudes and perceptions about the ones who stay, or who honestly may not be able to admit feeling stuck.

The dialogue currently seems to allow only two distinct groups: the dissatisfied leavers and the satisfied stayers. What about the dissatisfied stayers, who struggle each day to keep up with work loads that remain largely unacknowledged? What about the lazy stayers, who simply coast along? (Sorry, but there are a few...)

What's still necessary is an allowance for more messy, complicated teacher testimony from those who do remain past their probationary period, as well as those who stay past the window of contract mobility, after which transfers may involve some penalties. Like many workers, teachers may stay put in their profession for a mixed bag of reasons, aside from love and constant satisfaction: lack of mobility, family obligations, financial debt, deep ethical commitment and sense of mission, simple boredom, a belief in hope, fear of the unknown, personality style, practicality (knowns vs. unknowns, certain losses vs. uncertain gains), attitudes about the "seemliness" of career change, and even a simple lack of confidence: What else am I qualified to do?

This last attitude, an erroneous sense that the skills necessary in classrooms do not translate outside the school premises and beyond students, may be more pervasive than we might like to admit. It's certainly a legacy of Shaw's awful adage that "those who can, do; those who can't, teach." Perhaps the barely visible day-to-day working conditions of teachers--despite all the emphasis on assessment and accountability--reinforce the idea that teachers aren't themselves really doers. (For an eye-opening contrast of hour to hour tasks and managerial work, look at the "day in the life" comparison between a high school math teacher and a pharmaceutical salesman, from 4am to 9pm, in Teachers Have It Easy.)

Our effort should not merely be to "keep" teachers but to understand them with more depth. Who are the people who stay? How do dynamics of the profession shape their attitudes about what they do, what they deserve, and what kind of future they can expect?

Clearly, stayers should be able to do more than simply cheer for the home team. And if the dialogue with teachers is sustained, authentic and engaged--some of the favorite buzz terms for classroom work with kids these days--we may get more than "ritual compliance" or snarky rebellion in teacher responses to questions about their work lives.

Can you be a good teacher, one who stays, and still be conflicted about the demands of your job? It may be easier for us to prefer the narrative which assumes that the 78% who stay past their 4th year are fulfilled by emotion, Oprah's Teacher of the Year Show, and the occasional thank-you. The truth is, we might not really care about losing teachers if it weren't so damn inexpedient. An April 26 press release from the Center for Teacher Quality regarding its new study emphasizes the costliness of recruitment, hiring, and training for California, which now spends more than $455 million to offset teacher losses. State Superintendent Jack O'Connell laments the "inefficiency" of teacher attrition, particularly as it makes it difficult to close "the achievement gap" between affluent and poor students. There's some evidence to suggest that the continued emphasis on efficiency rather than other values will not demand a more thoughtful, coherent view of sustained teacher careers over the long-term, but will rather fuel stop-gap measures such as Bush's "adjunct teacher corps." Efficiency can also be used to justify contract restrictions which make it more difficult for teachers to seek better working conditions if they so choose.

It's important that O'Connell doesn't call poor working conditions a shame or an insult. In describing the costs of teacher loss, he doesn't point out the ironic clash of high expectations and heroic imagery with the actual treatment of teachers. It's beyond time that teacher voices--both in and outside classrooms--become more than a means to an end.


anonymous educator said...

If I don't get off of one of seven law school waiting lists, I will be back for another year.

Lee Dixon said...

In all of the discussion among bloggers about this California study, I've never heard this point... a survey of folks leaving the profession after a year or few years might include a lot of folks who couldn't handle the job. Some were pushed... thus blame the bosses. Some were too lazy... cognitive dissonance would not allow them to admit it. And some just weren't feeling successful on the teaching side like they were on the student side of the equation... maybe because they weren't.

And some might really be testing the waters and realize that there are greener pastures available... financially and otherwise.

Some may have had lousy bosses and worked in lousy systems.

That said, there's a might big hole to fill each and every year. Whether it's more professional treatment in terms of day to day demands or a more lucrative salary, more can always be done. We get what we pay for in the long run.