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I Just Can’t Stay… And Here’s Why

In the opinion section of this morning’s Post, a DC charter school teacher finishing her fourth year in the profession explains why she’s leaving.

The simple answer is burnout, a reason often given by the 30 – 50% of teachers (numbers vary based on the study) who exit from the profession within their first five years.

As you might expect, it’s not quite that simple.


But there is more to those numbers than “burnout.” That term is shorthand for a suite of factors that contributed to my choice to leave the classroom. When I talk about the long hours, for example, what I mean is that, over the course of four years, my school’s administration steadily expanded the workload and workday while barely adjusting salaries. More and more major decisions were made behind closed doors, and more and more teachers felt micromanaged rather than supported. One afternoon this spring, when my often apathetic 10th-graders were walking eagerly around the room as part of a writing assignment, an administrator came in and ordered me to get the class “seated and silent.” It took everything I had to hold back my tears of frustration.

Almost every education reform program I’ve ever read centers around the concept of recruiting and retaining great teachers.

At the same time all those politicians and educational “experts” are proclaiming as indispensable the “highly qualified teacher” in every classroom, they also want to automate the teaching process with collections of “best practices” with the goal of squeezing out even better standardized test scores from each student.

So, why would smart, creative, highly educated college grads want to become teachers only to be handed a collection of recipes that dictates precisely how to present a narrow, test-driven curriculum?

Many of those same politicians declare that schools ought to be run like a business.

While that’s always been a lousy idea (repeat after me: schools are NOT businesses!), if there’s one element from the corporate world that can and should be adopted for education, it’s that people are your most important asset.

And that a constant and high turnover of talented employees is probably the most detrimental factor for any organization.

Losing half of new teachers every five years is doing nothing good for American education and any meaningful reform needs to start by figuring out how to fix that problem.

Image by mlhradio and used under a Creative Commons License.


  1. Doug Johnson

    Hi Tim,

    I believe creative people both in and out of education just scare the hell out of mediocre administrators and politicians.

    Were I just beginning a career today, I seriously doubt I would go into education. I’ve never been able to follow orders very well.

    Good post. Thank you.


  2. Dave

    I really want to teach. I think education is important, I think trying hard to reach every child is important. I think I have a good chance of being a good teacher (although I’d never admit it to myself and keep working on improving).

    …but there’s no way I can become a teacher as long as every teacher has 20 stories like the one you quoted.

  3. E Favorite

    Keep in mind too that the goal of many reformers is to institutionalize the high turnover.

    They think that a few years of teaching by a young, fired up teacher is better than building a corp or experienced vets — maybe because the vets start talking back to management — maybe because the high turnover prvides continuous business for teacher recruiting organizations.

    It sure doesn’t help the kids.

  4. Tom

    A system built on martyrdom doesn’t scale very well. I think that’s what we’ve got.

    You can be a great teacher if . . .
    – you put in insane amounts of extra time
    – you can put up with low pay for actual hours worked
    – you can suffer politicians and other idiots regulating how you do your job
    – etc. etc.

    Or you can be something else (a mediocre teacher, a poor teacher or do something that pays better and is respected).

    It’s not hard to see why people leave. I’ve left k12 twice now and come back 3 times. I’m not sure I’ll come back a third time but I appear to be a masochist so it’s possible.

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