Preparing [or Prepared] to Leave?: A Professor-Student Dialogue about the Realities of Urban Teaching
by Alyssa Hadley Dunn & Samantha B. Durrance - August 15, 2014
This essay presents a dialogue between a new teacher and a former professor, generated when the teacher decided to leave the classroom after two years. Contextualized within the literature of teacher attrition and offering implications for teacher education, the essay explores what it means to be (a) a novice educator in the era of accountability and (b) a teacher educator tasked with preparing new teachers for this challenging climate. The authors share their perspectives in the hopes of starting a discussion about an important issue that remains relatively unexplored in the research literature: the stories of teachers who leave and their former professors who watch them go.
Samanthas post immediately stood out from the rest of the messages on Alyssas Facebook feed that October morning. Along with a link to a news story about a teachers challenging year in an urban school, Samantha wrote:
I'm quitting teaching after this year...I've had enough of thinking I can change the world by being a caring, passionate, dedicated teacher. I have given all of myself to this for too short a time to already be so drained. Fighting against the myriad of forces that drag our students down is just too much for me.
Alyssa was shocked by the announcement. This is despite the fact that, several times a year, she received an email or a phone call from a colleague with whom she used to teach. She had now come to expect these messages, because they were usually about the same thing: leaving teaching. What does it feel like to leave? they asked Alyssa, because she, they know, made that tough decision and has lived to tell the tale. She was always sad to get these calls because they most often came from teachers she admiredteachers who were engaging, critical thinkers and scholar-advocates for their students and for justice in urban schools. But she was not prepared to see Samanthas message because Samantha was not one of her former colleagues; Samantha was Alyssas former student. She was one of the best teacher candidates with whom Alyssa had had the pleasure to workcurious, open-minded, committed, and creative. For Alyssa, however, there was a stark difference between knowing intellectually that teachers leave the profession (and even doing research on teacher burnout) and the emotional reality of seeing a public resignation from one of her former students. What had happened in the past year since their paths intersected in a graduate teacher preparation program, where Samantha was a student and Alyssa was in her first year as a teacher educator?
Here we present the perspectives of and a dialogue between a teacher educator and a former student-turned-teacher. Our dialogue, which evolved over the course of ten months, began when Alyssa contacted Samantha after reading Samanthas public announcement about leaving after two years in the classroom. Though we contextualize this dialogue within the literature on teacher attrition, we approached this dialogue and this topicof being a new teacher in the era of accountability and a teacher educator tasked with preparing new teachers for this challenging climatewith no specific goals in mind. We offer our viewpoints in the hopes of starting a discussion about an important issue that remains relatively unexplored in the research literature: the stories of teachers who leave and their former professors who watch them go.
THE CONTEXT OF TEACHER ATTRITION
In recent years, there have been a spate of public teacher leavers in the form of viral resignation letters in online blog posts, op-eds, and social media posts. Veteran teachers like Gerald Conti from New York wrote that, after teaching for forty years, I realize that I am not leaving my profession, in truth, it has left me. It no longer exists (Conti, 2013). Similarly, a kindergarten teacher in Massachusetts resigned after 25 years in the classroom, and in response to the influx of testing and accountability mandates for even the nations youngest students, she wrote, I did not feel I was leaving my job. I felt then and feel now that my job left me (Sluyter, 2014). In Colorado, there was Pauline Hawkins, whose public resignation letter described how she and her colleagues feel defeated and helpless: If we speak out, we are reprimanded for not being team players; if we do as we are told, we are supporting a broken system (Hawkins, 2014). Partners of teachers wrote about their loved ones leaving teaching, as did North Carolinian Matthew Brown about his wife: After nearly seven years of her passion for teaching turning to dread, she is free to live her life unburdened by the oppressive hands of incompetent legislators and school board members who wish to micromanage education without actually getting involved with the people in it (Brown, 2013). There was even a website, ResignNC.org, created by a school media specialist for North Carolina teachers to publicly share their resignation letters.
This public display of teacher turnover confirms research that has continuously shown that teacher retention is a pervasive concern, especially in urban schools. We know that novice teachers often leave the profession within five years (e.g., Ingersoll, 2003), and we are learning more about why veteran educators leave as well. According to a 2014 report, teacher turnover costs over $2.2 billion each year (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2014). Of particular concern are the high levels of attrition for teachers in high-needs schools (Ingersoll & May, 2011; Ingersoll & Perda, 2008); high-poverty schools experience a teacher turnover rate of about 20 percent per calendar yearroughly 50 percent higher than the rate in more affluent schools (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2014, p. 3). While teachers leave for a variety of reasons, recent research points to an increasing frequency in the percentage of teachers who leave because of poor working conditions, a lack of autonomy and respect for the profession, and increasing amounts of bureaucracy and high-stakes testing that draw valuable time from the curriculum (e.g., Byrd-Blake et al., 2010; Santoro, 2011).
Together, we undertook an exploration of what it meant for Samantha to leave teaching and what it means for Alyssa to be charged with preparing teachers to enter the environment that Samantha, like many others, finds untenable. We have included excerpts here, categorized under brief sub-headings to highlight the general topics of our dialogue.
PREPARING FOR THE PROFESSION
Alyssa: Tell me about your journey to teaching in an urban school.
Samantha: Like many others, I decided to be a teacher because I wanted to have a positive impact on the lives of children, particularly children at risk of dropping out of school later on. My interest in teaching began in college, where I spent several hours each week tutoring students in algebra and geometry at the local alternative high school. I resolved that these students were of the type I most wanted to work with. Several years later, with a freshly issued masters degree in teaching, I was hired to teach mathematics at a middle school where more than 90% of the students qualify for the federal free or reduced price lunch program. I was full of ideas and of fiery determination. Despite thinking that I was prepared, I was also incredibly naive.
Alyssa: Why do you think you were naive? What were your expectations for being a new urban teacher?
Samantha: I went into teaching thinking that good teachers with good ideas really could change the lives of their students and the culture of their schools. I detested the inflated role that standardized testing plays in curriculum and instruction and thought I could somehow circumvent it in my classroom, engaging my students in learning for learnings own sake. The reality I expected was one in which I would be free to teach as I saw fit, as long as I covered the state standards. By virtue of a natural, constructivist approach, students would truly know and understand mathematics and would therefore do well on any assessment. I would develop positive, supportive relationships with my students, and they would be more motivated to strive for success. My professors and courses in my teaching program made all of this seem completely possible. I even got to test my skills during two pre-service teaching assignments, developing engaging lessons for students in two different grade levels and school environments. The students responded very positively to me during those internships, and I was able to get to know them well in a short time because I was mainly in a supporting role. I thought my experience as a teacher of record would mirror these pre-service assignments well. Despite all of that, nothing could really prepare me for being an actual cog in the machine.
ENTERING THE PROFESSION
Alyssa: Given what you wrote on Facebook and that youre leaving teaching now, it seems like the reality was different than your expectations.
Samantha: The reality I found was one in which there are far too many standards and far too little time to teach. The unstated goal of each school year is not simply a progression of learning in each subject; it is preparation for a singular test in April that signals success or failure. And while I thought that simply teaching the material well would be enough to allow students to successfully demonstrate their knowledge, the unfortunate reality is that students must also be taught how to take tests well in order for their scores to reflect what they actually can do.
Alyssa: What does your teaching look like given this standardization and high-stakes atmosphere?
Samantha: We were told to teach for exposure when the district-mandated curriculum calendar did not allow enough time to teach to mastery. It always seemed to take my students at least 1.5 times longer than the curriculum calendar allowed to get to a point where I felt they had mastered a concept enough to move on, and other teachers in my grade level had the same issue. When you dont have enough time to spend an extra day or two reviewing and practicing a concept, the result is that all but the quickest learners are in a perpetual state of half-understanding and frustration. It is heartbreaking to preside over, yet I also felt powerless to change it due to the higher powers that I had to answer to. My school district required periodic common assessments that assume you are teaching to the curriculum calendar, and teachers and schools were compared to each other using the results of these assessments. The constant pressure to keep moving through the curriculum, ready or not, limited my creativity and the options I had for teaching. Sometimes, though I hated doing this, I simply had to ask students to memorize a shortcut that we didnt have time to explore further.
Was your own experience as a teacher, in terms of the aspects of teaching that most frustrated you, similar to mine?
Alyssa: In many ways, it was very similar to yours. I taught in an urban high school with a test-driven atmosphere, disconnected district-level administrators, and a lack of resources. I grew increasingly frustrated by the neoliberal policies and the way they influenced the learning that happened in my classroom. I hated the benchmark tests we had to give every three weeks, the end-of-course tests, and the high-stakes graduation exams. None of them aligned with the culturally relevant curriculum I was attempting to teach, they were riddled with mistakes, and they took away valuable student-centered learning time. I loved my students. I miss them to this day. But I had strong philosophical and moral difficulties with teaching in a broken system. I felt complicit in perpetuating inequity by being there every day. And yet, I know that the problems will never be solved if everyone leaves. I left because I had another option--to return to graduate school and finish my Ph.D. I hoped that preparing new teachers would allow me to remain connected to urban education but also put me in a space where I could fight for social justice in different ways.
CHALLENGES IN THE PROFESSION
Samantha: Does it seem like the general environment for teachers has become increasingly hostile in recent years?
Alyssa: It does! I taught in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era, but not in the Race to the Top era. I left right before teacher evaluations became tied to student test scores. I think initiatives like thisto not only evaluate student success but supposedly teacher success as wellvia quantitative, standardized measures have strongly contributed to a hostile environment for urban teachers. For example, research continues to show that value-added models do not improve educational outcomes and that there is so much more to teacher effectiveness than can be measured in these ways; yet states and districts continue to implement evaluation procedures that jeopardize teachers success, morale, and satisfaction. Such policies clearly influence not only teachers working conditions, but students learning conditions. How about in your classroom; did you see your students learning change as your own working conditions changed?
Samantha: Many of my students viewed math, in particular, as an unpleasant hurdle that must be overcome each year if they wanted to graduate from high school. How can you inspire curiosity or encourage students to think critically and persevere through difficult or novel problems when, over the course of their years in school, they have come to believe that math is a collection of facts, tricks, and shortcuts that must be memorized if you want to be successful? The limitations imposed on me by the curriculum expectations of the district and state often made me feel powerless to do what I thought was truly best for my students learning and development. My classroom was technically my own, yet I was still very much bound; in this, I feel as though I have been lied to.
Alyssa: What do you mean by lied to?
Samantha: It often seems like no one but teachers acknowledges the awful reality of the culture of accountability we have created. Good ideas in the abstract (like evaluating teachers and regular assessments of students) have been turned into disfigured terrors in implementation. The monster that is standardized testingoriginally intended to give a measure of students progress each yearhas been reduced to an opaque, high-stakes benchmark that effectively signals the end of a year of learning more than a month before the school year actually ends.
Alyssa: As we move into now almost fifteen years of high-stakes testing since NCLB was instituted, were learning more about the negative impact that a culture of testing has on teachers and students. This testing culture seems like it was one of your major struggles as well. What was that like for you and your students?
Samantha: There is nothing quite like the torture of forcing students through rounds of standardized tests: the tedium of reading verbatim instructions after theyve already heard the same instructions for the past several days; the jailer-like feeling of presiding over a classroom that must stay absolutely silent as long as the tests are in the room (students are often afraid to even say bless you to anyone who sneezes); having to send an email to a designated person and wait, sometimes as many as 45 minutes, so that a student can be escorted to the bathroom, as if they are a criminal who might break free at any moment and run screaming down the halls. It is completely unnatural for children to remain silent and seated for two or more straight hours. It often seemed to me as though I were taking part in some socially-condoned form of child abuse, especially since we expected students to soldier through a morning of silent testing, confined to their seats and one room, and then attend their regular classes and proceed to learn more.
Testing is not easy on teachers, either. Due to recent cheating scandals, some teachers at my school were so paranoid that they documented each erasure a student made. Out of curiosity, a friend wore a pedometer while her school was testing to see how far she walked while actively monitoring her students. The result: nearly four miles in one day. This is not what education is supposed to be.
REFLECTING ON PREPARATION FOR THE PROFESSION
Alyssa: So do you think your teacher preparation program prepared you for the realities of urban schools today? Why or why not?
Samantha: I think the professors in my program did the best they knew how to prepare me for teaching today, but many of them have been out of the profession for years. While they are generally aware of the problems, I am not sure that anyone who is not currently or has not very recently been a teacher can truly understand the depth of them. I know from talking to coworkers that many teacher education programs focus on the creation of lesson plans, ideas for classroom management that are theoretically great but do not always work when put into practice, and teaching portfolios that are sometimes ignored by principals and not helpful for job searching. These things were nowhere near as useful as my pre-service teaching assignments in real classrooms, yet even those could not fully prepare me for single-handedly running a classroom from August to May.
As someone who plays a direct role in preparing future teachers, how does it make you feel when past students come back to you and tell you they have left or are planning to leave teaching?
Alyssa: Honestly, you were the first one that I knew about. I think that is why your Facebook announcement hit me so hard. Im sure there were others, but by not knowing, I was allowing myself to live in this illusion that, even though I knew many teachers were leaving the profession, none of them were my students. My students were going to be able to make it. I still desperately want to believe this, but I know it is not probable. Since we started this dialogue ten months ago, I have learned of two other former students who are considering leaving the classroom. I am devastated by their frustrations, like I was when I heard about yours. And part of me also feels guilty, wondering what I did or did not do. Can I realisticallyand ethicallykeep preparing teachers for an environment that I know stifles them and undermines their professionalism?
Besides worrying that I (and perhaps teacher preparation in general) am not doing enough to effectively prepare teachers to cope with todays neoliberal climate in PK-12 schools, I am also devastated when I hear my students are leaving because of the notion that teaching is a vocation. I remember how emotional it was for me to leave teaching, to realize that this career about which Id dreamed for nearly my entire life and thought I would pursue for my entire life was not what I had imagined. Even for those people who decide much later that they want to be teachers, I think its a societally accepted norm to consider teaching a calling. But what happens when you no longer feel called? Or when there is so much other noise from pacing guides, evaluation rubrics, and public attacks on teachers, that you can no longer hear the calling? Thinking about my students feeling thisafter I have so recently nurtured them and encouraged them to listen to the call and push themselves to be critical pedagogues and champions for educational equityis very emotional for me. It feels like I am leaving the classroom all over again.
Samantha: Then do you feel that you are misleading your students about the realities of teaching?
Alyssa: In some ways, I feel as if I am still selling the dream, even though I know many practicing teachers find the dream becoming more of a myth than a reality. I worry that former students will feel that we, your professors, have led you astray and lied to you about the realities of the profession. On the other hand, what is the truth? And how do we tell it in the process of also preparing people to be excited about their new careers? I often ponder if I could go back to teach in public schools today. And, if I could not, then am I hypocritical for encouraging others to take on such a career? Am I misleading if I tell them the truth about the demanding realities, but still within the context of a program that expects them to be teachers regardless of the challenges?
Yet, if I did not give them some hope, if I told them only about the challenges, thats also misleading. I still believe that there are spaces for hope and possibility. There are successful teachers who thrive despite the pressures, who organize collectively to fight back against policies and procedures that jeopardize them and their students. We must figure out how to make all schools spaces for possibility in this same way, recognizing that contexts and children are all unique. I also wonder: Are we preparing you to teach for the world as it currently exists or the world as wed like it to be? Is this a balance that can ever be accomplished? I would argue that we must prepare pre-service teachers for boththe realities and the possibilitiesin equal measure.
ENHANCING PREPARATION FOR THE PROFESSION
Alyssa: Youve already mentioned that you dont think teacher educators should shield novice educators from the unfortunate reality that standardized testing and paperwork take up much of teachers time in contemporary public education. Is there anything else you feel like was missing in your teacher preparation program that would have helped you sustain yourself as a new urban teacher?
Samantha: During the school year, it always felt to me like I was running a race that had no finish line in terms of the amount of work I needed to do at any given time. I usually spent an additional 15-20 hours working in an average week on top of my 40 contract hours. Many of these hours took place on weekends. Even then, it felt like the work was never done and I could never get ahead, which left me constantly tired and stressed. While self-care was mentioned as a necessity in my teacher education program and a few basic suggestions were given, the particulars of how to balance the responsibilities of being a teacher and how to leave work at work were never really covered. Some people are naturally better at that than others; I am not one of them, and teaching is not a job in which it is easy to leave work at work and go home for the day. For those of us who find it difficult to find and draw the line between doing the essentials well and killing ourselves trying to constantly be better, I think a more thorough and explicit discussion of teacher self-care, especially if led by practicing teachers, would go a long way toward helping to prevent new teachers from burning out.
MOVING FORWARD: IMPLICATIONS FOR TEACHER EDUCATION
As hard as it was for Samantha to leave the classroom, it is also difficult for Alyssa to see her go. It represents a direct challenge to teacher educators when we see not only our former colleagues, but also our former students, being demoralized, demeaned, and deskilled in their urban schools. What does this mean for our roles in preparing the next generation of educators and for our involvement in reforms and policies that impact not only their preparation, but their retention in urban schools?
There is no one right answer (or even several right answers) for how teacher educators can balance the role of preparing new teachers while watching their former students struggle and leave the classroom. Yet Samanthas suggestion of an increased discussion of self-care and a delicate balance of the realities and the possibilities are two important considerations for the future of teacher preparation. Of concern, however, is where to put this important dialogue. At a moment when teacher education institutions are facing even more external critique from organizations like National Council for Teacher Quality (NCTQ) and increased pressure to conform to external assessments, there is even less time to engage in in-depth critical conversations. For example, researchers have already found that teacher educators feel that edTPA takes away valuable time from discussions about diversity (Picower & Marshall, in progress). We know that teaching for diversity is one of the vital components of teacher education, yet if these discussions are at risk of being pushed out because of edTPA and other mandates, what will happen to other valuable components of teacher preparation like an increasing emphasis on self-care to respond to an increasingly hostile work environment for most teachers?
Teacher educators must find ways to balance a discussion of the incredible power and joy of teaching with a discussion of the increasing pressures educators face in todays classrooms, especially in urban schools. This is not to say that teacher educators are hiding things from our students, but, as Samantha discussed above, we may not be fully aware of the daily realities for todays teachers since many teacher educators have been out of the classroom for years and/or do not regularly engage in classroom- or community-based research. Or, even if we do, if it is our job to prepare new teachers, what would it mean for us to include a critical discussion of teacher burnout and the dismal statistics behind teacher attrition? Does this poison the water before new teachers even enter it? Or does it give them more of a fighting, collaborative spirit going in?
Teacher educators could also be reminded of the importance of fighting against policies that our former students find to be demoralizing and deskilling. It is not enough to write about these policies in our research. We have to show our pre-service teachers that we understand what is happening to them once they get into classrooms, and we want to advocate for better policies and practices for them and their students. In many cases, we have more power to do this than vulnerable new teacherswhether it means writing more op-eds and blogs, speaking with legislators and community organizations, or protesting inequitable educational practices by opting our own children out of high-stakes testing. We must join and support other community-based organizations that, though they may be built by PK-12 teachers, have a deep connection to what we do in higher education. Finally, we must push our own professional research organizations to take a stand against the issues that Samantha and other teachers find oppressive. These are the same issues that we knowbecause our own research has shown itthreaten the education of children around the country, especially those in urban schools. By advocating for and with these professional organizations and others, teacher educators also have an opportunity to model ways to stay resilient in their own profession and talk with pre-service teachers about the ways that we engage in debate and dialogue around the issues that we feel are threatening our profession, the quality of teacher preparation, and PK-12 education today.
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