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Guest opinion

Why do teachers quit?

Every time another study comes out or another op-ed is published about America’s lagging performance in education—and how it’s bound to put us at a major global disadvantage—the conversation turns to teachers. 

Are they any good? Are they hamstrung by standardized tests?  Are they respected enough? Are they getting paid enough? (The answer to that last question is generally a resounding no, as in a column by The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof in which he cited a study by McKinsey & Company that found that teacher salaries would need to rise by more than half in order to attract and retain talent from the top third of college graduates.) 

This ongoing discussion is very much on my mind lately, and not just because we have teachers in the family. I’ve recently taken on leadership of an important program, Tucson Values Teachers, to help the community rethink the importance of teachers. There’s a lot of work to be done here, as there is everywhere. This is a national problem. 

In an article from 2013 in The Atlantic, Richard Ingersoll, a former high school teacher turned sociology Ph.D. and professor at Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, explained why he and so many other talented would-be educators leave the profession so quickly. The money is part of it, for sure. According to data from the National Education Association, the average estimated classroom teacher salary for 2013-14 was up by 1 percent from the previous year, to $56,689 (with the low being $40,023, presumably for starting teachers). That’s hard to live on in some corners of the U.S. In Arizona, according to the NEA, the average starting teacher salary for the 2012-13 school year was $31,874.

The idea that teachers have easy hours and summers off is a myth; the reality is numerous non-classroom hours spent grading, mentoring and learning, as many teachers are enrolled in continuing education. 

Here in Southern Arizona, a study from TVT found that the average teacher workweek is about 60 hours. And pay is so discordant with the cost of living that one-third of them report having a second job — both to pay for their family’s needs and to cover out-of-pocket expenses for items like classroom supplies, parties and snacks, which now eat up as much as 4 percent or more of an Arizona teacher’s gross salary. 

“What is expected of great teachers and the amount they are paid is shameful,” said a former teacher from the Northwest who was quoted in the Atlantic article about why she jumped ship to an ed-tech startup. “Yes, if you love something, you should do it regardless of pay, but when you take into consideration the time, the effort, the emotional toll and what teachers are asked to actually do every day, it was painfully obvious that teaching is not a sustainable job. I really wish it had been.” 

Ingersoll described his own motivations for leaving the classroom after six years: “One of the big reasons I quit was sort of intangible. But it’s very real: It’s just a lack of respect. Teachers in schools do not call the shots. They have very little say. They’re told what to do; it’s a very disempowered line of work.” 

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This lack of respect and autonomy leads to some serious burnout. Ingersoll’s research found that somewhere between 40 percent and 50 percent of teachers will leave within their first five years, a figure that includes the 9.5 percent who leave their classroom before the end of their first year.  The outlook is even gloomier in the Tucson area; TVT’s 2013 survey of 1,644 teachers was meant to provide a true picture of life as a teacher in Southern Arizona — and to issue a wake-up call for communities to do something about it. 

Among TVT’s alarming findings: More than a quarter of respondents said they are not likely to be teaching in southern Arizona in five years, and another third were “not sure.” Recruiting to replace them will be a challenge, with our teachers not evangelizing for their occupation: Only 14 percent said they’d be “very likely” to recommend teaching as a profession, with 47 percent “somewhat likely” and a whopping 39 percent “not at all likely.” That’s a reflection of the low job satisfaction the survey uncovered: Only 30 percent of those polled report being satisfied (selecting a six or seven on a seven-point satisfaction scale). 

As for what’s causing that dissatisfaction, a majority of respondents have neutral feelings about resources and support given to them to be successful, recognition of their efforts and successes, opportunities for career advancement, work-life balance and perceptions of teaching within the community. 

Community misperceptions have dogged the profession for decades, from the casually cruel “Those who can’t do, teach” jokes to the persistent stereotype that teaching is a transitional career. 

Once upon a time (a dozen years feels like forever ago), I popularized a concept that launched a national movement that went international: the metrosexual. We sold new products to men, we created pop culture dialogue (having an episode of “South Park” and presidential candidates cite this movement is something of a high), but as important, we began a dialogue on the future of men, and of boys, and of how our institutions serve (and harm) them, raising awareness that American schools don’t always embrace the energy or physicality of boys. 

The challenge of working with TVT and the educational reform community to raise awareness about the plight of teachers, and the need to respect them, is the marketing challenge of a lifetime. Please join me in this momentous task.

A part-time Tucson resident, Marian Salzman is CEO of Havas PR North America, and the executive chair of Tucson Values Teachers.

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