Schools and Culture: The Wearing Down of Teacher

Summary: 46% of American teachers quit the profession within their first five years; what role does contemporary culture and the characteristics of the kids it turns out play in this appalling statistic?

Recently I read with astonishment a reference in the July/August Atlantic that 46% of American teachers quit the profession within five years — just about when they normally are on the verge of being truly effective teachers, at least for those who have the basic aptitude.

The Atlantic citation comes in the context of a plea by Amanda Ripley, author of a forthcoming book, Where the Smart Kids Are, that our new teachers be far more fully immersed in supportive supervision than has been the typical case. Teaching is a complex intersection of knowledge of material, communications skills, ability to motivate, familiarity with brain chemistry and cognitive development, and just plain old ability to value and relate to younger people. The deft weave of all this into an effective teacher does not happen over night, and certainly not prior to arrival in the classroom, no matter how enlightened a teacher training program might be.

Conservatively, half of what we know about teaching we learn on the job, but regrettably we do so too often in isolation from our peers, and our solutions to the problems we face are inadequately vetted by any matrix of communication with our colleagues. So Ms. Ripley is right on the money in calling for better support in the classroom, and for creativity in teacher training that will enhance the readiness of new candidates to enter their first teaching challenges.

Parenthetically, I cannot resist a reminder that more supervision, at least, will cost more money…..

No doubt the 46% attrition rate will elicit scrutiny and proffered solution from multiple perspectives other than Ms. Ripley’s, as well it should. I will try to provide one of those other perspectives.

Previously I indicted the peculiar complexities of our culture for its part in the dismal academic performance of a large segment of our children. The same matrix of social behavior that confuses the educational growth of our kids creates the Sisyphean battle that teachers have to wage against the prevailing culture in order to adequately educate their charges. For too many the battle proves not worth it, and they leave teaching.

Most folks who enter the teaching profession seek “to do good,” a motive fraught with pitfalls, but in its positive spin a motive of the heart, and an impulse to contribute to a good broader than one self’s own narrow confines.

So it is frustrating for a high school teacher (who I will know best), motivated in such a deeply personal way, to encounter a majority of his or her students not willing to give more than enough effort to just get by, earn a C or a D, and get a diploma. Of course, too many give too little to even meet that modest mark, or miscalculate the effort needed, and fail to graduate on time because their head pulls out of the ground only too late to meet the mark.

I am convinced from my exposure to high school students over many years that the percentage who fail to graduate on time, or ever, due to personal and family upheaval is well short of the whole catastrophe in our graduation and academic skill rates.

Put another way, why is it that perhaps 60% of high school students as I have experienced them in my reasonably good high school give 60% or less of the requisite energies to their studies?

It is easy to blame such statistics on a failure of teachers and schools to motivate, and surely we can do better, but in the school I have known well for many years a high percentage of teachers are competent human beings capable of engaging other humans, young ones, in a learning enterprise. That they do so less successfully than all would like begs the question as to why we fall more short of the mark than we would like.

One element in the complex set of answers lies with the cultural preparation kids receive for school.

A conversation last spring with one of my students whose belated recognition that he was going to fall short of credits for on time graduation has lingered with me and is relevant to this discussion. Our interaction speaks to the indictment of culture, and also to the frustrations of teachers, perhaps particularly to young teachers not so much older than their high school charges, who may finally become fed up with the resistance of their students.

The case I relate below, in reality in my next post, though inspired by a particular individual, is really a composite of too many such stories.

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