Rising pressures upset educators
For former Blair teacher Karen Zeh, the checklist was simple: Graduate high school. Graduate college. Teach.
There would be no detours at Another Career, no quick stopovers to Travel the World or Reevaluate Life. Instead, there would be early mornings and late nights, bleary-eyed students to teach and piles of papers to grade. High school, college, teaching—simple, she thought. So as her roommates one by one picked the corporate route, Zeh chose to follow her heart.
Four years later, Zeh is retracing her steps and adding another item to her list: Leaving to Explore New Options. Weighed down by the pressures of High School Assessments (HSAs) and worn thin by the daily grind, Zeh joined the ranks of the over 280,000 teachers nationwide who every year exit the revolving door that is teaching, according to the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (NCTAF).
Zeh's chances of surviving in the teaching field were not exceptionally high: About 33 percent of all beginning teachers will not last past their third year, and nearly 50 percent will quit before the end of their fifth. A quarter of all teachers choosing to leave the profession pull out because of job dissatisfaction, according to an NCTAF report released in fall 2003, and for every one teacher who retires, almost three more leave for other reasons.
Yet when surveyed, 96 percent of new teachers claim teaching is the work they love, according to a 2000 study conducted by Public Agenda. This love-hate dichotomy reflects a common sentiment among teachers, most of who are fiercely devoted to a profession that is often beset by frustrating circumstances beyond their control.
As the growing list of frustrations threatens to push more of America's educators out the door, increased scrutiny and heightened accountability resulting from No Child Left Behind policies have trickled down, magnifying the pressure on teachers teaching to standardized exams like the HSAs.
"Teaching seems to be headed in a much different direction because of certain laws putting more emphasis on testing, [asking] the school to be held responsible for a lot of the shortcomings of students," says former social studies teacher Vito Vergari, who left Blair after three years of teaching to pursue a degree unrelated to education. "The pressure trickles down to everyone."
Principal Phillip Gainous takes a two-pronged, empathetic-but-firm approach in the push to meet testing standards. "I try to give teachers a sense of urgency, but I also hope they understand that I understand," he says. "There is so much pressure, and for teachers to feel that the fun is going out of teaching, it's a legitimate thing to say."
Despite strong administrative support, some teachers find these tests to be dangerously challenging, especially for ESOL students or chronic underachievers and low performers. "It was a scary thought when I had students who wouldn't come to class, and I felt accountable for their scores," says Zeh, who left the social studies department in 2002 after teaching National, State and Local Government (NSL), the only social studies subject tested by the HSAs.
According to social studies teacher Kevin Moose, who taught NSL for three years, Blair delivers a firm message to its teachers to perform up to par. Although Moose never felt threatened individually, he recalls meetings where the general sentiment was, "we better do a better job, or else some heads might roll."
In the first years of state testing, Blair's teachers "worked like hell" to bring their students up to state standards, recalls Gainous. For some of these teachers, however, even an enormous effort was not enough. "Don't we get credit for progress?" Gainous asks helplessly. "Well, you get a pat on the back for progress and a kick in the butt for not meeting the standards."
For the teachers themselves, the external and internal pressures were massive. "Teachers were crying," says Gainous. They thought, "‘I've given my blood, and it didn't make a lot of difference.'"
At times, such pressure can tempt a teacher to give in. "I've had teachers here at Blair say, ‘Go transfer to Whitman'" where more students are meeting state standards, says Moose. Others simply refuse to teach the courses under the HSAs' microscope, pushing instead for electives where "you can do whatever you want, and there's no pressure," says Moose.
Rolling with the punches
Even without the pressures of standardized assessments, teachers still face frustrations that, 20 or 30 years ago, their predecessors would not have seen. Changing times have brought "a general rise in lousy student behavior," says Moose. One in five teachers loses four or more hours of instructional time per week to disruptive behavior, according to the American Federation of Teachers.
Although some students have always shown disaffection and disinterest toward school, English teacher Sherelyn Ernst feels that the difference lies in the increasing number of students "who feel that you're not there to help them; you're there to interrupt their social lives. It's harder and harder to convince some that you have something to teach them, something that will get them to where they want to go," she remarks.
Veteran English teacher Silvia Trumbower, who has taught at Blair for nearly 20 years and will retire this year, observes that the times have also brought a loss of student support for teachers. When confronting a student in the hall who threw his gum in her recycling bin, she "had to body check him to make him stop, and then the kids around him said, ‘Don't let her push you around,' and ‘Don't let her tell you what to do!'" she recalls.
Student attitudes are compounded with other frustrations to drive more teachers out of the classroom: 38 percent of educators leaving due to dissatisfaction reported a lack of student motivation, and 30 percent reported student discipline problems as reasons for leaving. "What wears you down is the daily battle of trying to get kids who fight school and fight you to come to school every day, to get on board," says Moose.
A loss of community
Teachers new and old to Blair often also feel a lost sense of community—a by-product of the sheer size of Blair. "Not everyone is on the same page," says one newcomer, physics teacher James Schafer. "If there's a commotion, do you even know the name of the teacher who is in the classroom next to you?"
Blair's size also adds to a feeling of increased anonymity and decreased accountability, says Ernst. "Kids don't feel accountable when teachers don't know them," she says. "It's a fact of life in a school this size."
Frustrations general to the profession of teaching include overbearing, unsupportive or uncooperative parents, students who don't care and administration unlike Blair's that is sometimes "so paper-oriented," according to Magnet teacher Eric Walstein, that "they claim to be concerned about education but really aren't."
"Not a 9-to-5 job"
To many teachers, the stresses that come with education make it an uphill job that is exhausting and often under-appreciated. "The teaching part is the easiest," says Moose. "The hardest part comes after the bell rings."
Staff Development teacher Suzanne Harvey, who heads the New Teachers' Program at Blair, agrees: Teaching is a never-ending process. "It's not a 9-to-5 job. You could work 24 hours a day and still not be satisfied," she says. "You take it to bed with you, I think."
Since the program's inception over a decade ago, Harvey has worked with numerous frustrated teachers on the verge of giving up. "The first year of teaching is like the first year of marriage; you can't do anything except live through it," she explains.
As part of the program, Harvey seeks to identify whether the block is temporary or constant; if it's more systemic, she will often switch the teacher to a different subject or another class. Despite her efforts, she estimates that, on average, Blair loses one out of every year's 30 to 40 new teachers.
For these teachers, the job becomes overwhelming, and they begin to feel like "this is it; this is the last straw," says Ernst. "They don't have the energy to deal with it anymore."
For Zeh, who now works in curriculum development for an affiliate of Sylvan Learning Centers, the daily grind was exhausting enough to steer her away from teaching altogether. "I started feeling that I was getting burnt out," she says. "My patience wasn't what it was, and I was getting tired of the regular things that are just part of the job."
More recently, adds Harvey, people with more varied backgrounds are also entering education as their second or third careers. However, Moose, who was in the Army before working as a teacher, feels that the first year is difficult regardless of a teacher's age or past experience. "When you walk in the hallways of Blair as a first-time teacher, you're overwhelmed by the number of people and the things you hear and see," he says. "The school is so big, you feel almost powerless."
Succeeding at Blair
For educators entering the field at any age, "this job requires a certain personality," says Moose. "If you don't take charge of the class, the kids will."
There is also a certain type of teacher that is attracted to Blair, believes Zeh. "They tend to be really civic-minded, very committed, very altruistic and very strong-minded," she says.
"Teachers know they have to work harder, give more of themselves here than at any other schools," adds Gainous, "and they're willing to do that."
Indeed, says Trumbower, who has quit twice in her teaching career to be with her family, there have been times when she has seriously reconsidered her decision to go into education. "I've had days where I've thought, gee, if I had a do-over, I wouldn't do this again," she says. But she feels her ultimate place is in the classroom: "I really do think that I was supposed to teach."
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