Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Why Are Experienced Teachers Leaving the Profession?

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Why Are Experienced Teachers Leaving the Profession?

Article excerpt

Conditions that undermine the power and effectiveness of our public school system need to be identified and promptly rectified, the authors warn. This includes, above all, creating a work environment that will continue to draw the bright, committed new teachers we need - and will keep them enthusiastic, energetic, and productive throughout their careers. But our track record over the past 40 years isn't very promising.

Too many will quit permanently because they are fed up. Their ambition and self-respect will take them into business or other professions. . . . They leave behind an increasing proportion of tired time-servers.

- Life, 16 November 1962

BY THE FALL of 2000, it had been about a year since we'd started noticing that our master's degree students - conscientious elementary and secondary school teachers - were complaining with increasing bitterness about a changing work environment in the public schools. "The love I had for my work is gone," we were hearing them say. "I never used to feel this way, but now it's hard to drag myself to school each day." Week after week the topic would come up in classes: for many teachers, teaching seemed to be losing its joy and satisfaction. And these were not beginners we were hearing from, either. More often than not, these were experienced educators, working to deepen their professional knowledge and skills by completing advanced degrees.

The substantial literature on teacher attrition has consistently shown a bimodal curve: most of those who leave teaching in any given year are either disillusioned beginners with just two or three years in the classroom or 30-year veterans who are ready to retire. Historically, those least likely to leave have been those in the middle.1 But our troubled students are strong, knowledgeable, and skillful men and women with high levels of commitment to their work and from five to 10 years of successful teaching experience. They are doing what they want to be doing - working to help young people learn - and they are good at what they do. Natural optimists, as educators usually are, they are not chronic complainers. Why, then, are they so unhappy?

We decided to see if we could find any evidence that the growing discontent and increasing attrition among experienced California teachers could be attributed to the test mania that now pervades the state. Chapman University, where we were both then working, produces more credentialed teachers each year than any other university in California. It wasn't difficult to assemble a database of all those who had completed a teaching credential in the five years between 1990-91 and 1994-95 - that is, those who had presumably been teaching from six to 10 years when we mailed out our questionnaire in the spring of 2001. There were 4,534 names and addresses on that list; we selected 900 at random for the survey.

While we were waiting for the questionnaires to be returned, one of us happened upon a copy of Life magazine in a local antique shop. It was dated 16 November 1962, and the eye-catching caption on the cover read "How we drive teachers to quit." Indeed! What an interesting coincidence. How did the country drive its teachers to quit 40 years ago? The author, Richard Meryman, had conducted interviews with many ex-teachers from across the country and had also spoken with some highly visible education leaders of the time - e.g., John Fischer of Teachers College, Columbia University; Francis Keppel of Harvard University; and Sterling McMurrin, U.S. commissioner of education early in the Kennedy Administration. But it was the teachers' comments and criticisms that interested us the most. We found some similarities - and some key differences. The world was different 40 years ago, and it can't be assumed that this is just another cycle of a perennial problem. Even so, it is striking how many complaints from 1962 sound remarkably contemporary. …

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