This week, I had a conversation with a colleague about a common topic for teachers at this point in the school year—exhaustion. This is my 12th year in the profession, so it’s not like I haven’t experienced mid-year fatigue in the past. But after spending last year out of the classroom, the physical and emotional toll of teaching seems deeper this year than at any other point in my career.
As my colleague articulated, I’ve been reflecting a lot on one question, “What has changed to make this job so hard?”
The unfortunate and scary reality is that my colleague and I aren’t isolated incidents of burnout. You can find a vast array of articles about teachers that are “barely hanging on.” This development comes with a high cost in the form of increasing teacher turnover. For example, in my home state of South Carolina, the number of teachers leaving the profession increased by 18 percent last year.
In trying to pinpoint why this is happening, I’ve found many people are quick to point the finger at “kids these days.” This, however, is an answer I refuse to accept. Today’s students may face new distractions and challenges, but helping students learn and grow always has been and always will be hard work. Plus, anyone that views students as the problem is missing the point entirely. Students aren’t the problem for teaching; they are the reason for teaching.
The Expectations Have Changed But the Structure Hasn’t
Instead, I believe the answer to my colleague’s question is more complex. Teaching has become “so hard” because what we expect of teachers has changed drastically in the past decade while the structure of the job has remained the same.
The changing expectations have largely been a positive development. The requirement in the Every Student Succeeds Act for all states to adopt “college and career ready” standards was an important step forward in our nation’s commitment to ensuring all students are taught to rigorous expectations. An education that truly prepares students for advanced study and the workplace requires mastery of skills like creativity, collaboration and communication—skills which are not easily measured using traditional multiple choice tests. Evaluation of these skills is best achieved through project or portfolio based forms of assessment that require far more time from teachers for evaluation and providing meaningful feedback.
Our schools are also increasingly shifting to competency-based models of instruction that focus on mastery learning. This, in turn, requires far greater levels of personalized instruction, which again, places more demands on a teacher’s time.
I am feeling this acutely in my own practice. Three years ago, I decided to allow more opportunities for retakes on tests and revisions of essays in my classes. This decision was based on analysis of data, and it has led to improved student academic outcomes. However, the new approach also leaves me stretched thin. Ten years ago, I simply moved forward after a summative assessment; now, I take the time to individually work with students to develop mastery long after the initial assessment.
But in spite of these changes in what is expected of teachers, the basic structure of the workday remains unchanged.
According to a 2013 survey of teachers in 34 different nations, American teachers spent the most hours per week on classroom instruction, with a comparatively small percentage of their total work week available for planning and assessing student work. This lack of time has been compounded for many teachers by increasing student-teacher ratios, a problem that is especially pronounced in many of the urban and rural schools that work with our most high-needs students.
For example, my school is currently partnering with a rural elementary school where fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms have ratios of 35:1. Personalization of learning for 35 fourth-graders is literally an impossible task for any single person.
This combination of limited planning time and big class sizes may have worked in an era where teachers were expected to stand and deliver a lecture and administer multiple-choice tests, but it is ill-fitted for a teaching model based on skills-based standards, individualized instruction and providing multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate mastery.
Simply put, we are asking teachers to deliver 21st century-instruction in a job structure designed for the demands of the past century. We are asking our teachers to be more innovative, but there isn’t matching innovation in teacher work environments. If we want to stop the exodus of teachers that are burning out, we must find the will and capacity to change this reality.
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