By Riley Manning/NEMS Daily Journal
Successful school districts are built on great teachers.
But teacher burnout is putting a big strain on districts and the profession itself to retain its teachers. The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future has calculated nearly one-third of the nation’s new teachers leave the classroom after just three years. By the fifth year, almost half are gone.
Jimmy Weeks, superintendent for the Lee County School District, said his district offers as much support as it can to new teachers through principals and mentor teachers, as well as professional development and training. He said teacher burnout may happen because incoming teachers do not have a realistic understanding of the workload.
“I don’t think their expectations match up with reality, once they see how much work is required for the salary they are paid,” he said. “They have to juggle testing curriculum, parent expectations and the social problems their students go through.”
Despite these things, a solid administration can be the determining factor in whether the job is worth the workload.
Starkville native Will Staggers taught one year of physical science at Quitman High School before moving to a career in the insurance field.
“I don’t think I was well-prepared, but I don’t see how anyone could be completely prepared without actually doing it,” he said.
As the year progressed, Staggers found his job surprising in both good and bad ways.
“Some of the kids really who had nothing saw no value in school. Dealing with that was very taxing, mentally,” he said. “But I also really underestimated the reward of getting through to a student and how powerful that was.”
Despite the ups and downs in the classroom, Staggers said his biggest problem was that he received little support from the administration on discipline issues. Without reinforcement from higher-ups, students did not take discipline measures seriously and soon returned to further disrupt the lesson.
“Getting backed on discipline controls whether you, as a teacher, can get your information out or not,” he said. “Without it, you kind of lose faith in your direction. The job as a whole was taxing, but if not for the discipline issues, I would have kept teaching.”
Stacy Carroll taught seventh- and eighth-grade science for five years at Tupelo Middle School between 2003 and 2008, before finding employment with the Tupelo branch of PuroClean, a disaster mitigation company.
Though she became a licensed teacher through an alternate route and was never required a period of student teaching, she found her rhythm quickly.
“My issues came with the mountains of paperwork required for failing students and discipline issues,” she said. “That came on top of grading assignments, writing lesson plans and creating quality, engaging materials. I just got burnt out.”
At the time, TMS used a “discipline ladder” that reset every nine weeks. Teachers were required to document each time they implemented a step on the ladder. A student received three warnings and a parent phone call before they could be referred to the office.
“I’m OK with handling discipline in class, but not the same issues over and over,” she said. “I can’t always stop in the middle of my lesson to document an instance in which I warned a student.”
Carroll said this was particularly frustrating to her because it kept kids who wanted to learn from receiving the lesson.
“Teaching was an eye-opening look at the community and the harsh reality of some students’ situations. That made me more urgent because for kids to break out of those patterns, they need education, and it made me more discouraged when that was interrupted,” she said.
Initially, Carroll entered the teaching field when she had children, so they would be on the same schedule as they got older. But over the years, the paperwork required for failing students began to eclipse the other work that simply comes with the job.
“I got into teaching so I could spend more time with my family, and one day it hit me that I had never spent less time with them than when I was teaching,” she said. “My last year I had more failing students than ever. I didn’t want to be remembered as the teacher who didn’t want to be there.”
Sunni Brown spent most of her nine-year teaching career in the New Albany School District, where she taught second grade. The biggest change she witnessed was the increased focus on state testing.
“When I first started, there was not so much of a deadline. I could take kids outside for walks to look at different kinds of leaves during science and that sort of thing,” she said. “But then so many objectives get crammed into each day that you can’t do those kinds of things.”
She described the transition from a student-oriented curriculum to a test-oriented one. For students, a teacher is part-parent, nurse and counselor, and Brown said with a test-based curriculum she was not able to meet those needs as well.
As the pressure to do well on the test increased, Brown said her job became less and less fun. In addition, she was bringing stress from work home at night. In 2007, Brown left the classroom to focus on raising her children.
“I didn’t enjoy my job,” she said. “There are a lot of middle men between teachers in the classroom and the ones making these curriculum decisions. I can’t help but feel like something is lost in translation somewhere.”
Gearl Loden, superintendent of Tupelo’s school system, said the changes experienced by Brown and Carroll are necessary evils in adjusting to a new age of accountability.
“We measure everything. Growth, test scores – you name it. Teachers are being held more accountable than ever,” he said.
The purpose of this accountability, he said, is to make sure subjects are being taught evenly.
“So a teacher can’t say, ‘I think the depression is more interesting than, say, World War II, so I’m going to teach more of it,’” he said. “That leads to problems in alignment, kids in different classrooms not being on the same page.”
As far as a test-based curriculum, Loden stressed the importance of teaching in a way that would prepare students for state assessments.
“We don’t want students to go to class, read the books, complete assignments, and then the assessment be completely different,” he said. “The state gives us a curriculum, and if we teach it well, there will be no issue with the state test.”
Meanwhile, Loden said the district is doing everything it can to accommodate and retain good teachers. The new Common Core State Standards, he said, will be a robust intensification of the curriculum and an adjustment for everyone.
“When you have a good employee, you want to do the best you can to offer them resources, support and development, whether that be helping them achieve an advanced degree or being flexible if a teacher wants to teach another subject, another grade or work toward an administrative position,” he said. “As far as discipline, we’ve done a lot of work to streamline and simplify the discipline ladder.”
About the Series
THE DAILY JOURNAL continues its year-long “State of Our Schools” series with the sixth and final installment of a six-day look at the importance of improving teacher quality in Mississippi. Today’s story
addresses the challenge of keeping teachers in the classroom. The next
package in “The State of our Schools” will explore the impact poverty, family structure and teenage pregnancy have on education in the state.
To view the entire series, visit http://educationmatters.djournal.com/stateof-our-schools
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