Why So Many Teachers Quit

That’s the title of this LA Times Op-Ed. I purposely haven’t read it so that you can compare Rizga’s reasoning and mine.

Conventional wisdom is that teachers quit because of the modest compensation, but every teacher enters the profession knowing that.

I hypothesize a lot quit because they fail to master classroom management. Absent positive relationships, classroom life is a complete drag. Also, nothing is more stressful than never truly having students’ attention. And absent attention, respect is elusive. Absent mutual respect, joy is inconceivable. What do those who struggle most with classroom management have in common? They usually aren’t comfortable with their authority.

That’s not all. When some teachers conclude they can’t teach as creatively as they want due to over standardization, they leave.

Another variable is true for everyone at whatever their workplace and for everyone in life more generally, teachers want to be appreciated. Teaching is among the most challenging and selfless endeavors a person can undertake, but no teacher that I know is perfectly intrinsically motivated. New teachers can master classroom management and commit long hours to crafting the most creative lessons possible, but if no one—students, families, colleagues, administrators, the “public”—ever truly acknowledges their efforts and demonstrates a modicum of appreciation, their enthusiasm inevitably wanes.

I suspect a significant proportion of teachers quit because of some combination of these three things.

How to fix it? Empower those teachers in each school that are most skilled in the art of classroom management to mentor those just starting out. Refuse to teach to standardized tests. Continually repeat that teaching excellence takes many forms. Show and tell teachers that you appreciate their efforts.

What Parents Get Wrong

Since my “What Engineers Get Wrong” post went viral I figured people are anxious for me to overgeneralize about other groups. Thus, a series is born. This is the second, back-to-school installment. The full title, “What Parents Get Wrong about Their Children’s Teachers”.

I received this letter from a teacher friend who was seeking my advice with in her words, “my current least favorite set of parents”.

The Least Favs wrote to my friend:

I am encouraged to read your statement in the newsletter that arrived today, that students “shouldn’t be afraid to say something if they need help,” because “C” does. He needs more challenges than you have been providing.

C is still not challenged in math.  From talking to him and following class work through homework, nothing seems to have changed since we brought this to your attention at the first parent teacher conferences and during two subsequent meetings. C still says “It is not that I know the material, but after we learn new stuff for a day or two it is pretty slow.” If you changed anything in the way you challenge the faster learners in your class neither C nor we noticed.  We do not see that you implemented any ideas we talked about, like more challenging text problems with the same underlying pre-algebra for the faster learners, or different homework options like the link to [another school] we sent you.

We would like to again explore solutions to make sure that C will be challenged for the final trimester. For us it is sad to see that his former favorite subject rarely make his eyes light up any more. The one time you offered alternative math homework, C had so much fun and walked us through his thoughts and discussed approaches with us. This is what we asked you about and are looking for! We are hoping that maybe drawing on others experience with highly gifted education and the curricula used at other schools will help us find solutions. Also, we would appreciate [the principal’s] mediation to this time come to a clear understanding about next steps.  We feel that after our last conversations, other than changing C’s class placement, which we appreciate, you did not follow up with us on letting us know which other options you explored.  This lack of communication leaves us with the impression that nothing has changed.

We would like to emphasize that C likes you as a teacher and that the way you explain things seems to work well for him.  It is solely the lack of challenges and the speed of learning that we perceive as a problem as well as the lack of communication with us as parents.

I’m giving the Least Favs a “C-” in teacher partnering and problem solving. It’s a flawed letter, but parents like this trounce ones who are asleep at the wheel. At least they’re engaged. I’m also giving them a few points for some positivity in paragraphs three and four.

My teacher friend was wrong for not communicating better with the Least Favs after the previous conference. The problem is the Least Favs use that against the teacher in a way that clearly suggests, “We’re in the right and you’re in the wrong,” instead of “Let’s find a way to meet in the middle and move forward together.”

Also problematic, the parents assume their child is gifted and yet their son admits “It’s not that I know the material. . . .” The student feels the pace is a little slow, but the parents don’t ask the teacher, “Is it possible to increase the pace?” They’re focusing exclusively on their child, who they believe, rightly or wrongly, is gifted. In contrast, the second year teacher is attempting to do her best for all of the students in the class. That’s one important thing parents get wrong, they assume secondary teachers, who typically interact with 100-150 students a day, are able to know their child well and individualize their curriculum and adjust their instructional pace for them. The very best can and do, but they’re the exception to the rule. Most teachers, especially new ones like my friend, teach to the middle to the best of their abilities.

Most problematic is the tone of the letter. Granted, as taxpayers the Least Favs pay the teacher’s salary, but teachers are human, and therefore parents are most effective when they seek common ground with teachers. Like trial lawyers, the Least Favs seem intent on winning an argument without any feel for what “winning” will cost in terms of the teacher’s sentiment towards them, and possibly their child.

Take aways or how to partner more effectively with teachers:

1) When communicating concerns with teachers, start positively. I suspect the first two paragraphs were like body blows; consequently, the positive points in paragraphs three and four were probably lost on my friend. Everyone is more receptive to constructive criticism after positive feedback.

2) Create good will by conveying reasonableness. Before pressing a teacher to differentiate their instruction, acknowledge that it’s “probably not very easy” to account for individual differences in background knowledge, skill, and aptitude.

3) Create positive momentum by honoring the teachers’ experience by asking “What have you or colleagues of yours done that’s worked in situations like this in the past?” The implication being “You’re a professional who can resolve the dilemma or partner with other teachers to resolve it.”

4) Create good will by conveying reasonableness. Instead of demanding follow up communication, say you’d appreciate some sort of follow up in the next few weeks. Increase the odds of a quick response by acknowledging that it’s “probably not very easy to communicate promptly with every parent every time something bubbles up.”

5) Ask what, if anything, you can do at home to also help improve the situation.

Back to School Anxiety

New students at the start of school—whether elementary, secondary, or university—are unaware that everyone else is as self conscious as them. Each student sits in class thinking everyone else is probably smarter, more articulate, more skilled. And so they fret, “How am I being perceived?” The especially anxious don’t say anything to reduce the risk of possible embarrassment.

I met with my first year writing students after a faculty panel discussion of the University’s first year reading book, Into the Beautiful North. One Spanish professor on the panel did an excellent job of deconstructing the text for the students. I thought she was too critical of the author, but she’s probably smarter than me. Afterwards, the 500 students were encouraged to ask questions. A young woman with strikingly blonde hair asked a thoughtful question which ended with “you-all”. Some students chuckled softly.

I told my students that was too bad because that phrasing probably had less to do with her intelligence than what part of the country she’s from. And no doubt, while asking the question in front everyone, she was wondering, “How am I being perceived?” I used that negative example to talk about how in our class we’ll laugh together at times, but never at anyone. No one, I explained, has to have their questions, thoughts, or comments perfectly formed before participating. Class discussions are where we practice becoming more articulate.

Then, I suggested we deconstruct the faculty panel that deconstructed the text. I told them that what’s true for students is equally true for faculty—they’re self conscious. Consequently, when there are four Ph.Ds on a panel, odds are they will subconsciously compete to be the most insightful and to sound the most professorial. In especially egregious cases, the ensuing pseudo-intellectualism can be comical. I pointed out to my students that the faculty on the panel would not talk the same way with friends later that night when at a pub or at halftime of a high school football game. That’s because they sat on the stage wondering, “Are my insights as cogent as the others’? Is my vocabulary as impressive? How am I being perceived?”

Everyone is insecure in different ways and in varying degrees. The best schools are those where a majority of teachers create supportive and encouraging classrooms where students are inspired to participate fully before they’ve fully arrived.