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The Best Way to Retain Teachers: An Ex-Teacher's Perspective on a Disturbing Problem

I have been thinking about this article from the Washington Post all day. It describes how, in Utah, to become a teacher you no longer have to have a teaching credential. Instead, you need a Bachelor's degree in the subject you want to teach.

A rare photo of my classroom

(The only picture I have of myself in my classroom.)

Probably I have been thinking about it because I made the fatal mistake of trying to engage people online who think this is a fantastic idea. "Learning about teaching is pointless" the argument always begins, and then it follows from there. "Because my uncle Tom taught me how to do geometry much better than the geometry/baseball coach I had in high school." "Because pedagogy takes time away from learning about the subject." "Because teaching is something almost anyone can do, so long as they know about their subject."

Now I find myself caught in a frustration loop, arguing with those voices in my head.

Of course, I'm not a teacher anymore. But I did teach, high school English for two years. When I decided to start teaching, I already had a degree in English, but to get my teaching credential, I got another degree, this time in Secondary Ed. (Were I to go back in time, I would just get myself a Master's degree instead of a second Bachelor's; I'm still not sure why I didn't even consider that option.) My English degree taught me about reading, writing, literature, history, grammar, and all things book-related; my secondary ed degree taught me how to teach what I knew to others.

I'd like to think I was a good teacher. I know I was passionate about it. I wanted desperately to teach each of my students several things: to love books, to write well, and to integrate literary thinking into their lives. I spent hours during my two years of teaching working on lesson plans. When I graded essays, I had a green pen in my hand, which I used to correct grammar and usage errors, write encouraging comments, and leave a final thought (on every assignment I gave). You can’t teach writing well without the comments and the corrections, but it takes so much time, especially when you’re grading 75, 100, 150 papers. I ran on caffeine and sugar and not much else during those years; I gained weight and I got wrinkles and prematurely grey hair. I loved teaching—but I was entirely overwhelmed by it. It consumed my life. I didn't go to church, or to family parties, or to my kids' activities. I just worked on my school stuff because I had to stay on top of it. If I didn't do it, who would?

And I did all of that work on a salary that would qualify me for food stamps.

Two years was all I could manage.

The Washington Post article says that "Education officials in [Utah] have been trying to figure out why 2 in 5 teachers leave the state’s public schools within five years."

Really? They can't have been trying very hard. Because their solution—let's hire people who don't know how to teach!—fails miserably at solving the problem. Their "solution" only tries to make it easier for people to become​ teachers, not to continue teaching, thereby underlining the idea that "qualified teachers" aren't the point, just bodies in the front of the classroom.

The process of becoming a teacher isn't the hard part. The hard part is continuing to teach for more than a few years.

Why do so many teachers leave the profession within five years?

Some of it is​ because of the pay scale. But if you dare suggest that teachers are underpaid, the reaction is swift: teachers should teach because they love their subject, because they love teaching, because they have the power to influence young lives. All of that is true, of course, but it is also beside the point. What other career requires people to be paid in encouragement and gratitude? And then there’s the always-popular response: But teachers only work nine months out of the year! Actually, what teachers do is squish twelve months (or more) of work into nine months.

It goes deeper than the pay scale, though. It’s also the working conditions, the run-down classrooms and ancient desks, the computer labs filled with painfully slow machines, the always-dirty floors. It’s the overwhelming classroom size. It’s the demand that if you want, say, whiteboard markers, then you know where Staples is. It’s the fact that technically, there is almost no time in the day for a teacher to use the bathroom. It’s the relentless, looming reminder of testing. And it is the overwhelming feeling that it is always the teacher’s fault when students don’t fulfill their potential.

And yet—we still love it. At least, I did. I loved being with students and trying to ignite their excitement, trying to encourage them to think broadly and objectively, trying to help them see how using the correct word might be the thing that gets them ahead in the world. I loved preparing lessons. I even loved the moments when, grading papers, I’d find a clever phrase or a thoughtful metaphor and think yes! Here! This student is learning! I would go back to teaching in a heartbeat—if they doubled the salary and required me to teach two classes a day instead of three. (Which will never happen, of course. Especially in Utah.)

Not anyone can be a teacher, and yes: pedagogy doesn’t save the world from apathetic, careless, or downright bad teachers. But here is what I know: I learned as much as I could about teaching before I got into the classroom. I worked my butt off during my student teaching experience and absorbed everything I could from my mentors. I was passionate about my subject and I put everything I could into my classroom.

But I only managed to teach for two years.

And I still feel like I failed as a teacher. Because I couldn’t endure, because it became too much, because I could see how I could give everything to it and it would still want more, because to be a halfway-decent teacher I would always be a horrible mother. Because I couldn’t thrive in a broken system.

Utah’s education officials have been trying to figure out how to retain teachers. Their solution is to throw unprepared people into a system that can’t keep the people who are prepared. That’s not even a bandaid. That’s a bomb.

Instead, Utah—the entire nation, really—needs to fix the system itself. If the state wants to retain teachers, it needs to create a working environment that bolsters and rewards, not drains and decimates educators. And it can’t only start with politicians. It needs to start with parents. What if every single parent in the state wrote a letter, demanding that their children’s teachers be given better working conditions? These parents need not be motivated by altruistic measures. They don’t need to care about the teachers at all. They need to care about their very own children, and realize that they will receive better education from teachers who are nurtured instead of drained by the system.

The solution to retaining teachers is not as complicated as Utah is making it. If the states want to retain teachers, they must create conditions that encourage teachers to continue teaching. The teachers would benefit—but even more importantly, the students would benefit. Until that happens, teachers and students will continue to suffer.



I faded away from the classroom because a.) we started moving so much and b.) how in the WORLD would I have kept up with the pace required to do a good job—as good a job as I did the first six years of teaching—after my own children arrived on the scene? There was/is simply no way. I was good at teaching, but it required every waking minute most of the time. And I did do work through the summer—I served on grading committees, curriculum development committees, and teaching myself how to be the very best speech/debate coach I could be (on my own time, for free, because the coaching pay only covered the school year part).

I can't imagine a system that formally discounts teacher education as a pathway to the classroom.

Beth S

You are absolutely right with all of this. I think we probably don't prepare teachers for the 'other side' of teaching (parents, tough kids, politics in the school etc). I will say, however, that I believe teaching is inate - I believe you are born to teach, or not. This doesn't mean that those who have the talent don't need guidance and preparation but I'm not sure you can make a good teacher out of just anyone. Sort of like an athlete - you tend to have the ability or not. As always, I love your writing, your willingness to be open and honest and your general perspective on most things. P.S. - I just left my daughter at college - a freshman - planning to become a middle school English teacher (she's a grammar fanatic). Say a prayer for her


Joining into the discussion two months late:

I also taught school for two years - 7th grade mathematics, in my case. I became another one of those "quit in less than five years" statistics.

The lousy pay was only one of the reasons I quit, but it's also the one thing that, if they fixed, might entice me back into teaching.

At one point, having worked as an engineer for 20 years before becoming a teacher, and acting a little too autonomously in my teacher role, I got in trouble and was hauled before the district superintendent. One of the things he thundered at me was, "You're a professional; it's time you started acting like one."

Being a second-year teacher, I was too intimidated to talk back, even with my union representative sitting in the room with me. I *should* have retorted, "I'll start ACTING like a professional when you start PAYING me like one."

The archives of Zyzmog Galactic Headquarters are full of blog posts about teaching, and especially about teacher pay.

I don't know what the true measure is of a teacher "success" or "failure", but I know it has nothing to do with test scores. Last May, my second year of 7th graders graduated from colleges and universities across the country. The fact that they thought it a significant enough event that they wanted to share the news with me and receive my praise (and gift cards)? I count that as a measure of success.

The fact that at least six of them have become teachers and credit my example for their decision? Um. I know how hard teaching is, and how paltry the rewards are. I'm not sure whether I should count this as a measure of success or of failure.

p.s. I've managed to maintain friendships with a significant portion of the nearly 200 kids I taught. I consider those friendships to be payback enough to offset the near-minimum-wage salary I received.

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