​I ran into my former colleague, “Joe,” a gifted teacher and leader, who transfered to a KIPP charter school this year.  I wrote about him here in the winter, when he was raving about how wonderful it was to teach at KIPP, where everything is so well planned, resourced, organized and implemented.  In particular, I was compelled by his statement that it was much easier to progress as a teacher, to spot and address his weaknesses, which had been too difficult to discern in the chaotic environments of other schools that serve high needs populations.

This time the story was different.  He looked a little vacant as he told me he wouldn’t be returning to his school next year.  I got excited for a minute, thinking maybe he’d come work at my school again.  “No,” he told me, shrugging. “I’m leaving teaching.  I don’t have a plan.”

“Why?  You’re such a wonderful teacher! What happened?”

“It just got to the point that every morning I thought, ‘I don’t want to go in.’  We start at 7:20 and go til 5pm. I wake up at 4:45 for my commute and some days don’t get home til 10. I’d honestly rather work in an office at this point.”  I am still trying to reconcile this new image of Joe with the old one, who was so in love with teaching and seemed to be made for the job.

When Joe left my school, it was a huge loss to our students.  But I understand why he wanted to go somewhere less crazy, more organized, that serves a similarly needy population.  His current school has one of the highest student achievement rates in NYC, but something is wrong if it killed Joe’s drive to teach.  He told me that many other teachers at his school burnt out and quit, much like him.  I’m wondering if this KIPP school sees its teaching staff as expendable.  Perhaps it has such a great reputation that it can easily replace good teachers who leave with other good teachers.

The tragic thing is that now, no more students at any school will benefit from Joe’s teaching expertise and wonderful ability to connect with kids.

The policy world and the media are paying far too much attention to the so-called “bad” teachers in the profession, who are relatively small in number.

The real question is what happens to the quality teachers in our schools?  Perhaps many of the “bad” teachers are just people who stay, who do not chose self-preservation as Joe has, but who succumb to the vacant feeling that overtakes them after years of working too hard and not wanting to go in every morning.

What is really wrong with our schools that serve high need populations?  Teachers are still expected to be martyrs, or else sink to mediocrity… which may be acceptable in stable middle class schools, like the ones I attended (I had many less-than-great teachers).  In high needs schools, however, where the odds are already stacked against students, mediocre teaching won’t get the job done.  It can actually mean life or death for some students.

If policy-makers care about the lives of all students in public schools, then they need to think about the lives of their teachers–and invest aggressively.  Otherwise, we’ll keep losing the good ones and keeping/creating lousy ones, and all the other investments the government makes in education, (testing, data systems, scripted curriculum programs, opening new schools, etc) will add up to nought.

[image credit www.signonsandiego.com]

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