Concerning The Churn

I have learned first-hand about the ways the system I teach in is fundamentally flawed, but today, I’ll focus on one thing that has been on my mind in particular.

A major, major problem in urban education is teacher retention. I don’t know the statistics, but I’d venture a guess that the average tenure of a Baltimore City teacher is less than 5 years. I suspect it is far less.

I have tons of support from veteran teachers through TFA, Hopkins, and my school support staff and administration. But here’s the kicker: few of these people who are so full of experience still run a classroom. Now I’m not pointing fingers because they all serve very important purposes. But those purposes so often don’t directly include teaching children.

Are we to blame veteran teachers for leaving the classroom? Absolutely not. The system is pushing them out. This job demands your heart and your soul, as well as every waking hour of your day, if you want to be even marginally successful. You take abuse from kids all day and the administrative demands cripple you and tie your hands. You cover for the personnel your school should have but doesn’t, and you make do with what resources you have because the things you want aren’t coming. You would have to be a superhuman to put up with this for more than a few years. Sadly but truly, taking 30 minutes of my evening to write this is shortchanging my students of a better-planned lesson.

I can’t speak for any of the aforementioned veteran former teachers. But if I could try to place myself in their shoes, I would imagine that most of these people are desperately dedicated to the cause, which is why they have decided to stay in urban education in one way or another. Some of them have even decided to take what appears to me to be an insane step up in dedication by becoming school administration–as much as I sometimes feel crushed by mine, I don’t envy my principal or AP in the least. For those who become support staff of some form, perhaps they see themselves as making more of an impact by training the next generation of educators. Or perhaps, more cynically, they want to recover a semblance of a life, get paid more, and/or sidestep the abusive daily grind of classroom teaching.

One thing is clear to me: the revolving door of teachers cannot be a good thing. The fact that they would throw untrained teachers into the toughest classrooms in the country–the mere existence of my program–is indicative of how desperate the situation is. My school is blessed with a relatively experienced faculty, probably on par with high caliber County schools. But the same can not be said of the average city school.

Those of us on the ground are begging for mercy. Unfortunately, the screams are mute once they filter up through the administration, to the district, to the city, and finally to the state legislature. All the State sees are budget deficits and failing schools, and as we all know, giving us the resources we so desperately need is just “throwing money at the problem”.

Kidding aside, urban teaching has borrowed the model of the investment bank: you come in, you pay your dues, and, if you survive, you move out of the grind and up in the world. This must be changed. The need for the absurd numbers of support staff would be obviated if the City didn’t have to retrain half its teacher corps every year. The way I see it, urban education will not improve until the system stops treating teachers like garbage and starts nurturing and protecting them. There simply aren’t enough superhumans out there to save the schools.

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