By Paul Cummins
Why is there such an enormous dropout rate in the teaching profession? We read of students dropping out (more than 50 percent in the Los Angeles Unified School District) and we read of the host of theories attempting to explain the problem. But why do so many teachers leave the field within three years of joining it? (Fifty percent of new teachers leave within five years.) The most common explanation is that the pay is too low and they are forced to seek higher-paying jobs in order to raise a family, secure housing, etc. Certainly this is true for some, perhaps for a high percentage. But I believe there are three other main reasons: heartbreak, frustration and depression.
I talk to young teachers frequently—some who come to me for advice, some seeking a better teaching opportunity, some wanting to be re-inspired or talked out of leaving the field, and some just to gain an empathetic ear.
What are their common concerns, complaints and issues? Mostly they have to do with external forces which prevent them from doing what they were hired to do and what deep down they wish to do: to teach, to educate and maybe even inspire their students. Most teachers do not enter the field for money and certainly not for a comfortable, secure work environment. No, they become teachers out of a dream of making a difference, of communicating their passion for their subject matter to emerging young minds and spirits. At the most fundamental level, teachers are idealists who dream of improving society.
Gradually, however, and sometimes rapidly, they are confronted with a host of problems few citizens truly understand. In fact, you cannot fully appreciate what many teachers confront until you visit their classrooms, their schools, walk the halls, listen to their “combat” stories, and see them in action in conditions that are often mind-boggling. Watch them trying to teach undernourished, frightened, angry, depressed, sometimes semi-literate, often several-grades-behind-where-they-should be young people: students afraid to go to the restroom; students who are not given books to take home and who must journey home through unsafe, gang-dominated neighborhoods, only to arrive at overcrowded apartments. Teachers trying to teach ninth-grade biology (as a young teacher recently told me) to students whose reading skills ranged from pre-primer to fourth grade! Teachers trying to teach courses where continuity is crucial to students who show up intermittently and whose excuses for their absences include the murder of a family member, pregnancy, arrests, beatings and hospitalizations, having to get a job, depression, STDs, drug overdoses and the like.
It takes, in many cases, real courage just to keep battling these odds day after day, and, of course, after a while, frustration leads to depression and heartbreak. You, the teacher, begin to feel impotent, hopeless and helpless. So, finally, in despair, you leave the field.
What would make a difference? My next blog will offer some thoughts.
AP photo / H. Rumpf Jr.