Teachers Want to Teach. Just Not in the Way They’ve Been Teaching.

Headline in Michigan Advance: Two Michigan educators exiting this month, many others may soon follow.

I was eager to read the piece—because I know these two, both of them stellar educators. I’ve read her students’ work. He guest-blogged on my Education Week site. They are experts. Veterans. Teachers with a full professional toolbox, and insight into how the system works, in both well-heeled and disadvantaged districts.

The article made much of the fact that they’re leaving now—in March—rather than slogging through the rest of the school year. But in many ways, leaving now is the right thing to do, for two interrelated reasons. It gives districts maximum opportunity to hire in the spring as a few newly minted teachers graduate, and provides a heads-up: Look. Get cracking. You’re going to be short lots of critical personnel, and soon.

It also means that teachers are now behaving like the rest of the working world: Choosing the best and most lucrative opportunities to share their skills and talents. Hiring on and leaving those jobs when it’s convenient. Making their own decisions, based on the way their employers and clients have behaved, rather than being made to feel guilty.

Teachers who leave in mid-year are acknowledging that teaching is a job, like other jobs. It’s not a divine calling or moral obligation like, say, parenthood. Not anymore.

I generally haven’t retweeted or commented on blogs from teachers who have HAD IT, and are leaving their jobs. Long before I got my first writing gig (a local newspaper column) 20 years ago, I contemplated leaving my job, pretty much annually. If you’ve been a teacher, you can guess at the reasons: Lousy pay. Ridiculous class sizes. Overwhelming workload, leaving little bandwidth for family. Evil administrators. And so on.

While the oft-repeated data shows that half of teachers leave their jobs in the first five years, the actual numbers (where did those teachers go?) are murky. Some of those folks aren’t leaving the profession forever—just that building, at that time. Some people who leave teaching stay ‘in education’ (just ask Teach for America). Divided opinion on whether that’s good or bad.  

My take on this is that there is a pre-pandemic baseline for teachers jumping ship, and we won’t know until August just how much trouble public schools are in, when it comes to staffing. But two years’ worth of pandemic teaching has undoubtedly changed the calculation.

Teaching—I repeat—is just a job, and teachers now have plenty of first-hand evidence of how their employers, their state governments, and their clients (parents and older students) value their time, dedication and expertise, during a national health crisis. Answer: not so much.

A couple of days ago, a memo from an Applebee’s franchise executive made the rounds at an Applebee’s restaurant in Lawrence, Kansas, resulting in a mass exodus, both local managers and those paid largely by tips:

“Most of our employee base and potential employee base live paycheck to paycheck. Any increase in gas prices cuts into their disposable income. As inflation continues to climb and gas prices continue to go up, that means more hours employees will need to work to maintain their current level of living. The labor market is about to turn in our favor.”

I would theorize that lots of teachers who are leaving now still like being a teacher—just as there are probably plenty of Applebee’s servers and line cooks who think they could probably do worse than work at Applebee’s.

The point here is that the curtain has been pulled back—legislatures are proposing that untrained college students and bus drivers maybe could, you know, fill some classroom jobs. The labor market is about to turn in favor of those who are chipping away at funding public education, as well as those trying to squeeze a little more out of people who spend half their income on a crappy apartment.

Finding out that the people who control your pay, hours, and the tasks you’re assigned, are plotting to take advantage of your desperation will not lead to an uptick in loyalty or effort.

Teachers, of course, are in a different employment category—most of us see the work as professional, highly skilled, and attuned to a common goal of improving the lives of our students.  And there have always been anti-teacher, anti-union forces roiling the waters of public education, trying to establish ‘value schools’ to minimally educate the poors.

What’s different now is gubernatorial candidates turning school board meetings into political rallies.  The infusion of dark money into what should be local debates over masking and curriculum. The demonstrated increase in violent and criminal behaviors, as the pandemic (maybe) winds down.

Can you blame a teacher—let’s say a teacher who has the financial wherewithal to seek another job, or live carefully on a pension—for deciding that it’s time to get out of Dodge?

I personally know at least a dozen teachers who have either quit, turned in their early retirement papers or are holding off on telling their districts that this is their last year, worried about retribution. I know another handful who are actively interviewing for alternate jobs that either pay more or will provide a better lifestyle than teaching.

I talked to one yesterday. Three times in our conversation she said this:

I really love teaching, but______________.

Fill in the blanks.

8 Comments

  1. I really love teaching but… I am tired of the unrealistic demands placed on us particularly post-pandemic (online, in person, hybrid, flipped classroom, EVERYTHING all at once). I don’t blame people for getting out!

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  2. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again…I would never recommend that someone go into teaching now. When I got dumped from my last teaching job, I went into a tailspin. I knew at my age that I was done. I tried subbing again for awhile but got tired of being a glorified computer monitor. Now I am (almost) thankful that I lost my job when I did. It was getting bad before I left; I just didn’t realize it yet. As a late career teacher, I was “all in.” I loved teaching, but…it would have killed me.

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    1. I left teaching before I was ready to–because the district offered a year’s salary to quit, and through a combination of circumstances, quitting when I did meant I would have a bigger pension. I ran the numbers–and I would have had to teach for at least 8 more years to break even, pension-wise. It seemed like the smart thing to do. In subsequent years, I did some subbing, some PD work, worked for two eduction non-profits and volunteered in schools. Until March of 2020, of course. Last week, I went back to a one-hour a week volunteer job. I miss being in schools.

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  3. I was eligible to retire two years ago, but stayed on a bit longer to put myself in a better financial situation. I will need to work another job when I retire from teaching, but I can be choosy about the job I take and if I hate it I can give my two-week notice and move on. There are plenty of jobs available right now and pay in our area has gone from about $13/hr. pre-pandemic to around $20/hr. I really love teaching, but I will not substitute teach after I retire. I know I would be free of many of the things that bother me about teaching if I substitute taught, but I would still need to deal with increasingly difficult student behaviors.

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    1. Some time, we’ll have to meet for an adult beverage and I’ll tell you my substitute teaching story. It’s hilarious.
      The State of MI erred, big-time, in not allowing retired teachers to sub as much as they chose. They’re paying for that mistake now. There are plenty of things for you to do–want to come up and play with the Northport Band?

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      1. Thankfully substitute teaching is on the “critical shortage” list here in Michigan, so retired teachers can sub as many days as they want as long as the district labels it properly in payroll. I retired at the end of 2020 and I’m surprised to find that I actually like substitute teaching. I never thought I’d do it. It’s been fun, and at 3:30, I go on with my day with not a worry in the world because my work day is actually done.

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      2. As one retired teacher to another–thank you, Jeanne.

        When I retired, I thought I’d sub for the allowed days–but just in the building I’d just left, where I knew all the kids. Pocket money, and a favor to my colleagues, who could take a day off with confidence.

        When I signed up at the ISD, I learned that I needed a TB test (on my dime–although I had a negative test less than 2 yrs earlier), fingerprinting (also on my dime), and I had to take a substitute teaching class (full day, and–you guessed it–on my dime). The class was offered by the ISD, and required, before they’d put you on the list. Also–‘on the list’ meant you could be called by any of the five districts in the ISD, even if you only wanted on building, in one district. You couldn’t pick and choose, a sub was a sub.

        You don’t understand, I said–I have just retired from a school in your district. I know how to teach. Oh, there is lots to learn, she said. I asked how much a sub made, per day. You have to call the district and ask, she said. We’re not allowed to share that information.

        That was before the pandemic, but we were chronically short of subs already, at that point.

        You go, Jeanne. Teachers appreciate you, I’m sure.

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