Sunday, March 8, 2009

Accolades from The Cornerstone Blog and Teacher Burn-Out at Charter Schools

My recent post, Call for Help: How Do We Get Boys to Respect The Restroom?, is featured in The Cornerstone Accolades: February 2009. Angela Powell, author of The Cornerstone and the accompanying blog, declared it the "Most Brutally Honest Topic" of the month.

Of the many great posts she highlighted, it was the "Best Post on Teacher Burn-Out" that intrigued me the most: What Happens When Overburdening Teachers Succeeds? from Thoughts on Education Policy.

This is an issue I worried about before starting at a charter school, and now I understand why there's such an insane turnover rate. I probably think about it more often than most because the lack of consistency in the faculty and staff is uniquely damaging at my school. Most of our students have had incredibly tumultuous home lives or a distinct lack of encouragement and support from anyone, making the strong teacher-student relationships we try to build that much more important than your average school.

It's not a stretch to say that these relationships are one of the few things that get students to come to school at all. Unfortunately, there's been a proverbial revolving door for faculty over the first few years of the school's existence. I can't recall a week that's gone by where students who've been around since the beginning haven't lamented all of the teachers that have left them. They're no more optimistic about this year's larger, incredibly talented staff: it's no secret they expect all of the teachers to leave at the end of the year.

There are many issues that contribute to the high teacher turnover in schools like mine:
  1. The time commitment, in terms of the school day and school year, is I think much more than most of us are actually prepared for. I am one of those teachers who was doing 10-12 hour days when it wasn't required, but the longer school year is much harder than I anticipated. I also forgot how challenging it is to not really be able to take a day off: at most charter schools there are no substitutes, so everybody has to cover for you. Thus you feel bad for shifting the burden onto your equally stressed colleagues, and avoid sick days like the plague (pun very much intended).
  2. Having worked in a small school earlier in my career, I was used to the idea of wearing many hats during the school day (driving kids to and from school, mopping floors, serving meals and breaking up fights). That being said, it's never easy to take on more responsibility outside of teaching. Many of the support staff you might take for granted aren't available because charter schools can't afford them. When you're called upon, the "it's not my job" cop-out doesn't fly here. If you don't do it, nobody else will, so you just roll up your sleeves and get to work.
  3. Inside the classroom, you're held to a higher standard than ever before. Classroom management systems are stricter and more consistent throughout the campus. You have more thorough documentation, tracking, grading systems, differentiation, and lesson planning than ever before. You're probably aiming at huge gains in standardized test scores, perhaps adding even more pressure than you'd expect at most traditional public schools. Finally, you're facing much closer scrutiny from state agencies who seem all too eager to find reasons to pull the plug on promising schools. It's a lot to put on yourself.
  4. On top of everything, you're almost always doing more work for significantly lower pay. Considering how criminally underpaid your average public school teacher is, taking a charter school position is absolutely brutal. I'm barely scraping by on a salary that can't compete with the Boston Public Schools scale, and I find myself constantly wondering if I'll have enough to cover the bills any given month.
There's more, but these four issues alone are enough to keep many good teachers away in the first place. I feel like charter schools will face a teacher shortage even greater than traditional public schools are facing within the next 5-10 years. It's something that those who start schools need to consider very, very carefully.