This week is teacher appreciation week. If you don't have children in school, you probably haven't heard of it. If you do, you have probably been asked to send some small token to school with your children for their teachers.
I'm all for teacher appreciation. But they need more than a thank you. According to the article "Public Education Faces a Crisis in Teacher Retention" published in 2005 on Edutopia, of the 200,000 new teachers hired each year, 22,000 quit after one year.
Edutopia is a Web site published by The George Lucas Educational Foundation, founded in 1991 by filmmaker George Lucas and venture capitalist Steve Arnold, the Foundation celebrates and encourages innovation in K-12 schools.
Thirty percent of new teachers leave after three years and 45 percent leave the profession after five years.
Replacing this many teachers yearly is expensive for a school system as it must recruit and train new teachers each year.
The article does not cite the amount of money teachers make as the reason for the loss of new teachers despite the fact that teachers make considerably less than their college classmates upon graduation.
What causes the inability of school systems to retain teachers? Impossible expectations and a seniority system. New teachers are often given classes, rooms and materials and sent to schools that no experienced teacher wants. I personally have seen this happen as chairman of the Language Arts Department at Newton County High School. When an experienced teacher left or retired, whatever she left in her room was confiscated during post planning by teachers who were returning next year - materials, books, bookcases, posters and even furniture. As a result, the new teacher, who can hardly afford to purchase much, has the fewest resources. And the new teacher is the teacher who needs those resources the most.
Teachers on average spend $500 of their own money a year on materials for their classrooms. Who says so? Uncle Sam. He allows teachers a $500 deduction on their income tax forms for buying classroom materials.
Beginning teachers usually are given students and classes that are the most challenging and need the most help for the same reason. Experienced teachers request the classes they are the most comfortable with, classes that are the easiest to manage and classes for which they have a multitude of materials. According to the U.S. Department of Education, teacher turnover is highest in public schools where half or more of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches (Edutopia). These schools are usually not the schools where experienced teachers would choose to work; therefore, they are the schools where the majority of beginning teachers are sent.
Paradoxically, the students in the schools and classrooms who are taught by inexperienced teachers are the students
who need teachers with the most experience.
In addition, new teachers must work in isolation without the support of their colleagues for the majority of the day. In most jobs, if you encounter a question you do not know the answer to, you can stop what you are doing and get an answer. Not so with teaching. You cannot leave the students alone to solve the problem, or even ask for help on your computer because everyone else is busy attending to a class or other administrative duties.
Often when the teacher finally does have time to ask for a solution to whatever the problem was, it is too late or the problem becomes forgotten in the overwhelming expectations of the job. Teachers have little time to socialize with their peers. Many have to eat with their students or chose to remain in their classrooms and complete paper work instead of taking a break and eating lunch. Just listening to a fellow co-worker complain or talk about a job gives the listener some insight and ideas on how to improve his performance. Teachers rarely get this luxury.
The Newton County School System does have a mentoring system for new teachers. I was a mentor. But often I was paired with someone who was teaching a subject with which I was not familiar. I could help with the administrative trivia and classroom management, but not with curriculum.
If all this sounds trivial, let me remind you that we need new teachers. Over one-third of the teachers in public schools in the United States are over 50 and are considering retiring.
My point is we need to appreciate teachers, especially new teachers, every week. Those young men and women who choose to take up the challenge of teaching students who often don't want to learn and who have parents who want to blame anyone but their children for the lack of learning need all the appreciation we can give them.
Paula Travis is a retired teacher from the Newton County School System. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.