Seven years ago I was a high school teacher. I lived and breathed for my students. I worked 65 hours a week and was named to "Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers" twice in six years. I had many friends who were good teachers, too. We were all young, in our mid-to-late 20s, and we loved our jobs and gave it everything we had.
And it worked.
You’d never hear us complaining about "lazy" or "unmotivated" students—our students worked hard, learned well, and did everything we could have asked of them. They repaid us with gratitude, with compliments, with loyalty. Now we're all gone -- none of us teaches anymore. What happened?
I’m not a teacher anymore because I wanted to spend time in the evenings and on weekends with my children, instead of doing clerical work like entering grades and marking homework.
I’m not a teacher anymore because it didn’t make sense to work 65 hours a week for $28,000 a year when I saw friends with the same amount of education working less hours for two or three times as much money; because rushing to before-school yard duty, lunch duty, teaching five classes and then attending a faculty or department meeting made me feel as if I worked in a white collar sweatshop; because I spent so much time doing paperwork, yard duty, and other things that were unrelated to teaching; because I never had a moment of free time between September and June and never had a dollar in my pocket in July and August; because I spent years and thousands of dollars going to state-required, nighttime teacher-education classes that usually taught little but consumed valuable time.
You’ll notice that I’m not citing the students as a problem, and I never would because they were rarely the problem. Administrators, occasionally; parents, occasionally; but rarely the students—they were my greatest joy.
The cost of the departure of my associates and I from teaching is sizable—150 students a year over 35 years times 10 teachers—that’s more than 50,000 students negatively impacted. How many millions more are hurt by similar departures in schools all across the country?
In War and Peace the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy wrote that the success of an army depends not upon its generals or its weapons but instead upon the will and strength of the individual soldier in the field. I believe it is the same with education—success or failure depends above all upon the strength of the individual teacher in the classroom.
I’ve seen many good teachers at bad schools succeed, but I’ve never seen a bad teacher at a good school succeed. An effective school or school district leadership does one thing above all: It keeps good teachers in the classroom. Our schools are like an army whose best soldiers, year after year, are deserting. I have three solutions:
Give teachers secretaries or teacher assistants. College professors have teacher assistants. A lawyer, a doctor, or an accountant has a secretary. If I’ve graded 150 assignments, why can’t somebody else enter them into the grade book and add up the grades? If they’re simple assignments, why can’t someone else grade them? Why can’t somebody help me make copies or do basic research?
Reduce the workload. Most schools have six or seven periods and the teachers teach five or six classes. Any teacher would be far more effective teaching three or four classes, instead of five or six. There is no educational or academic reason why teachers should teach five or six classes—it’s simply a matter of money.
Keep "preps"—the number of different classes we must prepare for—to a minimum.
Just as my departure hurt other parents’ children, the problem has now come back around to hurt my children. My little boy has had problems in school, in large part because he is a little boy. Until recently he had a wonderful teacher who was patient with him, worked hard, and related well to the kids. Unfortunately for us, she got pregnant and just had a baby. She says she’ll be back and maybe she will be, but she’ll never be the same. She’ll never work 65 hours a week again because she'll want to spend time with her own child. As her child grows older and she has more children, she’ll either leave teaching or not work as hard and do a mediocre job. Either way, she’s probably finished as a top-drawer teacher. My son and countless others like him will suffer for it.
- Los Angeles Daily News5/27/01