Fine on Leaving Teaching

Sarah Fine explains in today’s Washington Post why she’s leaving teaching.

A lot of my friends and colleagues in blogging have commented on this story, and I imagine that more of them will jump in as they read this story.  It’s one that matches all too well the experience of my colleagues and former colleagues in teaching.

Take C, for example.  C used to teach biology at my school.  He ran a first-rate program.  Then he announced one day that he was packing up and leaving — he’d been offered a high-paying job at a hospital.  But that wasn’t why he was leaving.  He was leaving because the school administration was scrapping his biology program in favor of physics.  It wasn’t until he found out that he’d be expected to teach physics that he began looking for work at the hospital.  What biology teacher wants to teach physics?

Or B.  B was pulled from some teaching duty to do administrative work.  The admin work regularly sent him on business trips away from school, so other teachers complained at having his kids constantly in study hall.  That made him look like a bad teacher, so he rescheduled some trips so that he could be on campus for his kids.  Then he missed sports commitments, or the admin work he was supposed to be doing suffered.  No matter what he was trying to do, he was always shortchanging a part  of his responsibilities somewhere, because the three duties he’d been given had incompatible schedules.

A few weeks ago, I read a story about a charter school in New York that had hired tutors for kids at $15/hour and no benefits, and the union protested and eventually had these un-unionized teachers fired.  The article (sent to me by my conservative father) argued that it was for the kids’ benefit that these tutors existed, and that similar functions provided by a unionized employee cost $23/hour plus benefits.  “What was the big problem here?” the article asked. “It’s all for the kids’ benefit; why can’t we just hire tutors for them?”  The article implied strongly that the unions were more interested in their members than in the welfare of the children.

But let’s be honest here.  No one saw C’s dedication to the study of biology as the thing that kept him in teaching.  No one saw that asking a teacher like B to work part-time in three different areas was going to cause conflicts.  And no one saw the inherent nastiness in taking one of America’s lowest paid professions and turning it into a middle-end working-class job. What other ‘profession’ in America needs unions?  Know any lawyers who are joining the American Legal Union (local #234) lately?

Because that is what’s happening.  As a country, we are consciously and unconsciously looking for ways to reduce the costs of teaching — standardizing classroom behavior and operations so that anyone can do it; randomly changing teaching assignments; mismanaging teachers; changing curriculums; driving young and middle-aged people out of the profession; hiring cheap tutors. And this is pushing our teachers out of the professional middle class and into the working class.

Everyone knows that the costs associated with education have been rising faster than inflation for decades.  Everyone avoids talking about how unsustainable this is, or the coming deflation in education which will be every bit as bad as the mortgage bubble of the last few years.  I wish I could tell you whether it will be next month or next decade or next century, but I think it’s lurking out there.

And it’s lurking out there because of stories like Sarah Fine’s, and C’s, and B’s, and mine: we claim we want Ivy League preparation for all American students, but towns and cities only want to pay Brenda’s Cosmetology Institute prices for that education — and some towns begrudge even that pittance.

The other side of this equation is the revolution in technology.  Whether they’re technophilic teachers who embrace tech but chafe against daunting rules and regulations, or technophobes who fear so much as a cellphone in a student pocket, teachers are right to see computers, cellphones, and the Internet as a threat to their existence.

Because there are learning resources out there now which are better than at least some teachers, in some subject areas.  The range and depth of these offerings are only going to increase.  So… while I don’t see the teaching profession vanishing next year, I don’t think it’s going to get healthier any time soon.  Between public officials and school administrators trying to cut costs and increase standardization on the one hand, and free learning resources on the other, I think our profession is facing a journey between Scylla and Charybdis.

Such journeys rarely end well.

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  1. […] Fine on Leaving Teaching — There was an article from a teacher named Sarah Fine in 2009 explaining why she was leaving teaching for the Washington Post.  Many of the reasons why she left teaching resonated with my friends who were teachers, and we were all commenting on this story.  Nearly ten years later — we called it then. And now, there’s #redfored, and other movements trying to help teachers earn a living wage. […]

  2. The point you make about technology and teachers is true. Last semester I was taking a biology class at a community college. Unfortunately my previous biology teacher didn’t teach the next class so I had to go with another random teacher and judging from my options were limited. My teacher turned out to be half way decent as a biologist but he didn’t teach. He read us powerpoints supplied from a book that wasn’t our book. If we asked genuine biology questions, he would give us the run around and leave us unanswered and even more confused. He was decent enough in lab though. He seemed passionate about biology but was not trained as a teacher. I steadied myself for the semester and analyzed the first test so I could better prepare myself for the remaining tests but they were random. Some seemed written from the book, some were written by the PowerPoint presentations, others were from a different teacher and some were from an Anatomy and Phisiology book. We were all bewildered and couldn’t figure how to pass the class. Eventually I found online resources for the book and if it wasn’t for these extra materials I would not have passed that class.

    I realize that was a long story for a simple response but I figured the backstory was needed.

  3. I agree that there is a crash out there waiting. But I don’t see most parents wanting to leave their children in the hands of people only making minimum wage x2 all day. And I don’t see the majority of parents wanting to home school via the Internet yet. Finally, I also don’t think most students or parents want to see all instruction done via computers. Maybe in 20-30 years, but not in the next 10-20.

    I do think that we need a revolution in turning teachers into true professionals. Maybe that will require teachers running their own schools and true choice for parents with tax money going directly to the schools, not the state, county or district.

    Or maybe we’ll just keep the system we have and keep slipping further behind.

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