Attracting a greater number of talented individuals to the teaching profession will be a hollow victory if we cannot retain them. Recent studies have shown that a significant percentage of beginning teachers leave the profession within a few years. Low salaries may be a part of the problem, but presumably, people entering teaching are well aware of the salary range associated with the job. Working conditions for teachers are the root cause of problems related to retention.
We are fond of telling our children that a certain amount of responsibility comes with freedom. Teachers are given a great deal of responsibility, but very little freedom. They typically have almost no say in how a school is run and must frequently alter what they do in the classroom to meet the expectations of others. If they are willing to give up some of their free time to serve on committees, they may be given a voice in selecting textbooks or writing a curriculum for the subjects they teach, but it is usually a small voice. They are expected to maintain discipline within the classroom (and the halls), but often do not receive the support of administrators, or even parents, when they attempt to deal with students who are being disruptive. They are expected to help students meet expectations with regard to standardized achievement tests and are held accountable if students do poorly on the tests, yet often face intense pressure from parents and administrators if they assign failing grades to under-performing students. Few people outside of the classroom seem to appreciate just how difficult it is to modify the work habits and behavior of students.
Many beginning teachers are surprised at the amount of time they need to put in outside of the normal school day to do their job well—planning lessons, examining and evaluating resources, and/or grading papers. This can be particularly frustrating when significant blocks of time within the school day are consumed by faculty meetings and “professional development” activities that offer little meaningful or useful information. Many administrators could be considerably more respectful of teachers’ time. Meetings should be called only when necessary and should be kept as brief as possible. Professional development activities are particularly important to many beginning teachers, but teachers should have a strong voice in, and choice of, which particular sessions, workshops, and seminars they attend. Our best and brightest teachers are fully capable of managing their own professional development.
One area of particular concern to many teachers is discipline. Teachers should be able to focus on teaching, rather than getting bogged down in red tape, phone calls to parents, or other aspects of dealing with disruptive students. When students are disrupting a class, teachers should be able to send them from the classroom immediately, without a lot of paperwork, or the necessity of being involved in any follow-up to the incident. A simple form briefly stating the nature of the disruptive behavior should be all that is required of a teacher with regard to a disciplinary incident. There will undoubtedly be some teachers who abuse this privilege. They should be dealt with individually.
We claim that teaching is a profession, but we do not always treat teachers as professionals. We claim to respect and appreciate teachers, but the actions of many administrators and some parents do not support that claim. We talk about “empowering” teachers but give them little real power. Teachers are sometimes consulted with regard to school policies and other issues, but far too often their opportunity for “input” is primarily an exercise in creating the illusion of participation in decision-making. Their suggestions are not seriously considered. They are expected to “rubber-stamp” decisions that have already been made by the administration. Teachers (and students) have a more direct knowledge of the problems our schools face than anyone outside of the classroom. They should have a much greater voice in determining how our schools are run. If we hope to retain the best and brightest individuals who enter teaching, working conditions for teachers will have to be improved.