Preventing Teacher Burnout – Part 3: Say No

teacher burnout

In part one of this series, I discussed why it is that teachers fail to protect themselves from burnout, even though high numbers of teachers report being stressed, exhausted, and disengaged at work.

In part two, I previewed the strategies I use to work 40 hours per week. I also talked about the importance of having a plan if you’re serious about cutting your own hours back.

Today, I’ll share my number one strategy for working fewer hours. Like many solutions, it’s simple but powerful.

Say no.

Many people have a hard time saying no. They have good reasons. We’re social creatures who are wired to cooperate. Society reinforces this biological urge to get along. No feels negative. Saying it disappoints other people. Pop culture contributes with messages about having no regrets, being a doer, and squeezing every drop out of life. For a lot of people, just the thought of telling someone no makes them uncomfortable. They agree to every request and then wonder why they’re stressed out and tired all the time.

Teaching is hard. Putting more on your plate makes it harder. The easiest way to lower your stress, which will make it less likely you will burn out somewhere down the line, is to do less work in such a stressful environment.

First, you have to give yourself permission to say no.  That requires a shift in mindset. No feels bad. It’s by definition a negative word. It means letting others down. It’s these negative thoughts and associated fears that lead people to say yes when they don’t want to.

Instead, think of it this way: When you say no, you are also saying yes.

  • When you say no to joining a committee, you are saying yes to having more time to prepare high-quality lessons or provide students with valuable feedback.
  • When you say no to attending an after-school night, you’re saying yes to your own family, your own interests, and your own energy levels, which will, over time, lengthen your career.
  • When you say no to solving another teacher’s problem for them, you’re saying yes to empowering that teacher to solve the problem herself.
  • When you say no to things that don’t impact your students, you are saying yes to things that do.

When you say no, you say yes to the opportunity to say yes to other things.

That’s because every decision you make has trade-offs. Saying no simply means you’re acknowledging this fact.  You can’t do everything and you shouldn’t try. Do a few important things, and do them well. If you do, you’ll be in excellent company.

Warren Buffett said, “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.”

Steve Jobs: People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are.”

Seth Godin: “Just saying yes because you can’t bear the short-term pain of saying no is not going to help you do the work.”

Paulo Coelho: “When you say yes to others, make sure you are not saying no to yourself.”

Meghan Trainor: “Nah to the ah to the no, no, no.”

Even Jesus said no. 

Many teachers will claim that they don’t have a choice. They have mandatory meetings to attend. They are contractually obligated to chaperone a dance, or three sporting events, or attend graduation. Some claim that even though certain work isn’t technically mandatory, it’s strongly encouraged.

All of that may be true. I, too, have meetings I must attend, parent-teacher conferences to run after school hours, and an open house every fall.

But there are a number of opportunities that teachers accept when they shouldn’t. When teachers say they “have to,” they often mean that the repercussions of not saying yes are uncomfortable. Or, more likely, the fear of such repercussions is uncomfortable. Elaine St. James, in her book, Living the Simple Life: A Guide to Scaling Down and Enjoying More, says:

“There are often many things we feel we should do that, in fact, we don’t really have to do. Getting to the point where we can tell the difference is a major milestone in the simplification process.”

And simplifying your job will help you cut hours off it.

An entire book could be written on why and how teachers should say no (in fact, I’m writing one), so for this article, I’ll stick to knowing when to say yes and when to say no. It’s actually very easy.

Say yes to opportunities that:

  1. Excite you
  2. Further your goals

Tim Ferriss goes so far as to say, “If it’s not a hell, yeah, it’s a no.” Saying yes to only those things that excite you or that further your goals is a way of prioritizing, and all teachers must do more of it. We simply can’t do everything, so we must choose.

Let’s practice:

Would you like to join the March is Reading Month Committee?

Say yes if the idea of meeting with others to design fun activities around reading is exciting to you or if you think that joining such a committee will further one of your goals. If you feel like you should, or if you’re worried what others will think if you don’t, or if you haven’t joined a committee this year but you know Joyce is on three so you probably ought to and this one doesn’t sound so bad …say no.

I’ve really been impressed with how you use technology in your classroom. Would you mind sharing some of those ideas with the staff?

Your body does this thing when it’s presented with an offer. It is either immediately excited or it wants to get the hell out of there as fast as it can. Listen to your body. If the very mention of an opportunity gets you excited, then say yes. If you love technology and like sharing ideas with others, then this one is a no-brainer. If you love technology but the thought of presenting to your colleagues creates a pit in your stomach, say no (and maybe offer to make a video or send out links to the stuff you do). If the idea of spending time on any of it makes you instantly resentful — if you immediately start figuring out when in the world you’ll find time to pull it all together — then say no. It’s not a priority right now and other stuff is.

Remember, saying no means saying yes. What could you do with the time you would have spent on this committee or doing that presentation or attending that event? The reverse is also true: Saying yes is saying no. So if you’re a teacher who just can’t stomach the thought of telling people no, consider this: every time you say yes to something, you are also saying no to lots of other things. Saying yes to donating your time over here means you don’t get to use that time over there.

If you’re a teacher who always says yes, then when you return to work after the break, say no to something. Say no to anything. Don’t apologize. Don’t give excuses. As Susan Gregg says, “No is a complete sentence and so often we forget that.” No is empowering. Try it. You might like it.

If you want more ideas on how to prioritize, check out Angela Watson’s 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Over the course of a calendar year, she’ll give you tips in the areas of lesson planning, grading papers, communicating with parents, establishing routines, and many others, all with the aim of helping you cut hours from your typical workweek. It’s great stuff, which is why Teacher Habits is an affiliate partner and all links to the club are affiliate links.

If you want to read more about prioritizing, acknowledging trade-offs, and the importance of saying no so you can focus on your greatest contribution, check out Greg McKeown’s excellent book, Essentialism. It will change how you think about no.

All of the articles in this series:

Part 1: Why Teachers Fail to Protect Themselves

Part 2: Making a Plan

Part 3: Say No

Part 4: Slash Your To-Do List

Part 5: Optimize Planning Time

Part 6: Ditch Homework

Part 7: The Common Core Advantage

Part 8: Leverage Technology

Part 9: On Writing

Part 10: Use Class Time

Preventing Teacher Burnout – Part 2: Making a Plan

Teacher Burnout

In part one of this series, I explained why so many teachers fail to protect themselves from burnout. You can read that article here, but the short version is:

  • Like newlyweds entering marriage, teachers enter the profession with a romanticized view of teaching. They therefore fail to take steps to prevent burnout because they believe – as newlyweds do about divorce – that burnout won’t happen to them.
  • Almost everyone thinks they’re special. Not only do we see ourselves as different, we also see ourselves as better. This overconfidence leads teachers to assume the things that caused other teachers to burn out won’t affect them the same way. We tell ourselves it won’t happen to us because we’ll handle the pressures better.

Part two is about how teachers can take steps to prevent burnout from happening to them later in their careers. It’s about being proactive, and as any proactive person knows, you must start with a plan.

Dave Ramsey is a financial guru who hosts a radio show each weekday and has sold millions of books on the topic of personal finance. If you boiled down his philosophy on personal money management to just three words, they would be, “Have a plan.” Ramsey often says that if you don’t control your money, it will control you.

The same can be said about your time.

The easiest way to make it less likely you’ll end up a stressed out teacher on the road to burnout is to work fewer hours before you’re burned out. Teaching is enormously challenging and stressful. Even days where you show up 30 minutes before your students and leave 30 minutes after dismissal will leave you drained. Choosing to work even more hours in such an exhausting environment will make you more tired and susceptible to eventual burnout.

If you want to be less stressed about work, spend less time working.

Over the next eight days, I’ll lay out the strategies I’ve used to limit most of my workweeks to 40 hours. Depending on your circumstances, you might not be able to cut that much right away. But I am confident that you’ll be able to reclaim hours of your life without sacrificing effectiveness in the classroom. In fact, as I wrote here, you’ll probably be a better teacher.

Here are the nine strategies you’ll learn:

Make a Plan
Say No
Slash Your To-Do List
Optimize Planning Time
Ditch Homework
The Common Core Advantage
Leverage Technology
Stop Taking Student Writing Home
Use Class Time

Before we get to the Make a Plan strategy, you have to be sure you actually want to work fewer hours. If you’re reading this, I assume you do. But there are teachers who take great pride in working long hours. It’s become a part of their identity. You’ve seen them on social media or heard them at school “complaining” about their 60-hour workweeks. They work through breaks and work all summer. Of course, they’re not really complaining. They’re martyrs. They think all this work makes them more dedicated than other teachers and they want you to know how committed they are.

And you know what? They may never burn out. Good for them!

This series is for people who want to cut back but either don’t know how or worry about what impact it will have on their performance. This is for people who dislike working so many hours but haven’t figured out ways to effectively cut them back.

To start, you will have to change the way you think about work. Hours do not equal productivity. Repeat that over and over until it sticks like gum on the bottom of your shoe. Hours do not equal productivity.

Article: Bring Back the 40-Hour Workweek

I once worked with a teacher who spent untold hours at school. But she spent it on the wrong things. She created beautiful bulletin boards, made her own worksheets, and wrote comments all over her students’ writing. Nobody could question her commitment, but was she really a better teacher than those who spent their time on more impactful things?

Second, you have to commit to working less. You have to make it a goal. You have to set limits. You must make rules and default settings. Decide ahead of time how much you’re going to work in a week and then stick to it. Teaching will expand to fill whatever time you allow it. There is always more to do and a more time-consuming way to do it. It’s your job to draw lines and abide by them.

Start with the end goal. Mine is to be a good teacher for 30 years. In order to do that, I know I’ll have to avoid the burnout that has afflicted so many teachers before me. A big part of that is limiting the number of hours I dedicate to work. I know that a healthy work-life balance is essential to me maintaining a long career.

I have a weekly goal of working 40 or fewer hours. That may sound impossible, but if you make it a priority, you will look for ways to make it happen. I’ll be sharing specifics in the coming days. For now, know that there are three components of any plan that you will need in order to follow through and stick with it.

1. Set Rules for Yourself – I learned the importance of self-imposed rules when I first tried to lose weight. If you allow yourself to make bad decisions, you will. Rules are unbreakable. In the weight loss game, some of my rules were a) no soda, b) no fast food, and c) no seconds at dinner. When I’m actively trying to lose weight, I don’t break these rules. For limiting the hours you spend on school, you’ll need hard rules. One of mine is: Don’t grade homework. Another is: Don’t join any unpaid committees. With two rules, I’ve cut hours from my school year.

2. Set Defaults — Defaults are like rules, except they’re breakable in certain circumstances. You’ll likely have more of these than rules. Think of defaults as the font on your word processor. Most of the time, you’ll open Word or Google Docs and start typing, not caring about the font. Whatever the default is will do. However, there are times when you want to change font, or the size, or the color. When it’s necessary, defaults can be changed. Here are a few defaults I have that help cut hours off my workweek:

a. Say no.
b. Don’t take student work home.
c. Make a to-do list for tomorrow before leaving each day.
d. Don’t waste planning time.
e. Finish an outline of next week’s plans before leaving on Friday.

Defaults are what you’ll usually do, but circumstances can necessitate a change. Sometimes I’ve got to scoot right after school and I don’t have time to make my to-do list. Sometimes I say yes instead of no. Sometimes my plans don’t get done by Friday at 4 pm and I have to write them at home on the weekend. But most of the time, these defaults help me work no more than 40 hours in a week.

3. Set Limits — If you don’t set limits and stick to them, you’ll soon find others stealing your time. Using your planning time means not spending 10 minutes talking with coworkers. Not checking emails on Sunday might mean not being as helpful as you’d like to be to those who email you. Saying no to committees and after-school opportunities might lead to resentment from colleagues.
Setting limits can be tough. That’s a theme I’ll return to often during this series. None of this is easy. That’s why so few teachers do it. There may be uncomfortable consequences. The question you must answer for yourself is:

What are you willing to do to regain hours of your life and extend your career?

For me, this is about being healthy and happy. It’s about having a long, productive career in the classroom. It’s about making the most of my time on Earth.

As you read the subsequent articles in this series, you’ll have to decide for yourself which strategies you’re willing to implement. You’ll need to make your own rules, set your own default settings, and establish your own boundaries. You’ll have to decide how badly you want to protect your energy and stress levels. And once you do, you’ll be able to make your own plan to cut hours off your workweek.

All of the articles in this series:

Part 1: Why Teachers Fail to Protect Themselves

Part 2: Making a Plan

Part 3: Say No

Part 4: Slash Your To-Do List

Part 5: Optimize Planning Time

Part 6: Ditch Homework

Part 7: The Common Core Advantage

Part 8: Leverage Technology

Part 9: On Writing

Part 10: Use Class Time

Preventing Teacher Burnout — Part 1: Why Teachers Fail To Protect Themselves

Teacher Burnout

Teacher burnout is a problem, and not just in the United States. Nearly half of teachers in India suffer from burnout (Shukla and Trivedi, 2008). In the U.K., 77% of teachers who are considering leaving the profession cite the volume of work as the reason (Source). Here in the U.S., teachers report symptoms of burnout at very high levels.

61% of teachers in a 2017 AFT survey said their jobs are “always” or “often” stressful, a rate twice as high as workers report in the general population.

All 30,000 teachers surveyed by the American Federation of Teachers in 2015 “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that they were enthusiastic about teaching when they began their careers. Only 53% still agreed at the point they took the survey. Those who “strongly agreed” dropped from 89% to just 15%.

Gallup found that only 30% of teachers are “engaged” at work. 57% aren’t and 13% are “actively disengaged,” which describes teachers who express unhappiness at work in ways that undermine their colleagues’ accomplishments.

Perhaps most alarming, teachers’ mental health is at risk. In 2015, 34% of surveyed teachers said their mental health was poor for seven or more days in the last month. In 2017, that number climbed to 58% (Source). In the U.K., 10% of teachers use antidepressants to get through the day, and the suicide rate among primary school teachers there is twice the national average.

You Are At Risk

All of this means that if you stay in the classroom, you have a good chance of burning out. But in spite of these cold, hard numbers, many teachers do nothing to protect themselves. They keep plowing ahead, working too many hours, stretching themselves too thin, stressing themselves out, steadily trudging down the path to either an early exit from the classroom or a long, slow slog of uninspired teaching until they’re old enough to retire. That’s sad for their students. And it’s sad for the teachers. What a waste of the best years of their lives.

So why don’t teachers take what should be clear warning signs seriously? Why don’t they take steps early in their careers to prevent burning out later on?

A survey out of Clark University asked young people an interesting question that may help explain. Researchers asked 1,029 people, aged 18 to 29, both single and married, whether or not they expected their marriage to last their whole lives. 86% said they did. Researchers concluded that the other 14% didn’t anticipate ever tying the knot in the first place. Which means that, even though the U.S. has a divorce rate of about 50%, almost every single young person believes it won’t happen to them.

One of the researchers, Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, explains why:

“We still have a very romantic view of marriage as a society. Other surveys have shown that close to 90 percent of emerging adults say that they expect to find their soul mate as a marriage partner. That’s a very romantic ideal.”

The Downside  of Idealism

A new teacher is no less idealistic than a new bride or groom. Like marriage, they go into teaching with romanticized notions. They’re going to be Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, Jaime Escalante teaching kids calculus, Rafe Esquith turning kids on to Shakespeare, or Michelle Pfieffer saving teens from the mean streets. They’re going to get in there and make a difference.

I’m all for youthful exuberance, but lying to ourselves hasn’t helped us avoid burnout (or divorce). A better approach would be to look at the statistics with clear eyes and actually believe them. Returning to the marriage analogy, wouldn’t it be better for young people to view the divorce rate as a warning sign for their own marriage? Shouldn’t the new bride and groom figure out what causes people to split up and then take proactive steps to avoid repeating those couples’ mistakes?

Shouldn’t teachers learn from those who came before them?

Perhaps we refuse to learn from other people because we believe they have nothing to teach us. In his fascinating book, Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert writes:

“We tend to think we’re unique, and that just because someone else feels a certain way about a set of circumstances does not mean that we will.”

But we’re wrong.

Illusory Superiority

While we spend more time noticing the differences among individuals, the reality is that humans are far more alike than different, and not only biologically. Research has shown that people’s emotional responses are far less varied than we assume. So while the best way to predict our futures is to ask someone who has done the thing we’re considering doing, we won’t, because, as Gilbert writes, “We don’t realize just how similar we all are, [so] we reject this reliable method and rely instead on our imaginations.”

And our imaginations stink. Because we don’t stop at thinking we’re different from others. We think we’re better.

  • In a 1977 study, 94% of professors rated themselves as having above average intelligence relative to their peers.
  • 32% of employees at a software company rated themselves better than 19 of 20 coworkers.
  • 90% of drivers think they’re better than the average driver.
  • Most people, when asked to rate themselves from 1-10 on any positive trait, will give themselves a 7. (Source)

None of us like thinking we’re just like everybody else. From childhood, we’re told that we’re special, unique, an exceptional snowflake. It might help protect our delicate egos, but it does nothing to impel us to take action so that we can avoid ending up just like everyone else.

Believe the Data

The numbers don’t lie. None of today’s burned out teachers expected to be so when they started their teaching careers. They looked around and said, “Nope. That won’t happen to me.” They said:

  • Others might get stressed, but I won’t.
  • Others might not be able to juggle all of these responsibilities, but I can.
  • Other teachers aren’t as good as me.
  • I don’t need as much sleep as others.
  • I don’t need to decompress after work.
  • I’m more capable than others.
  • I’m more selfless than others.

Today’s stressed out teachers failed to learn from the stressed-out teachers who came before them and therefore repeat the selfsame mistakes.

So what can young teachers do to avoid the pitfalls laid before them?

Some things are difficult to control. You have little say over your boss or how the community perceives teachers. You can extend your career by becoming an expert classroom manager so that student misbehavior doesn’t drive you from the field. Likewise, there are proactive steps you can take to alter the environment in which you teach. But the elephant in the room, the one thing many teachers could exercise more control over but don’t, is their volume of work.

Teachers have too much to do and not enough time to do it. But there are things every teacher can do to cut back on the hours they commit to the job without sacrificing effectiveness. In fact, as I’ve written in the past, I believe that trimming hours off each workweek will make you a better teacher.

I intend to teach for 30 productive years. To do that, I started taking steps a few years ago that limit the number of hours I dedicate to the job each week. Most weeks, I work 40 hours or less.

In the rest of this series, I share the strategies that have worked for me. Circumstances differ, and I have some built-in advantages that you may not, but I’m confident that while you may not get all the way down to a 40-hour week, you will be able to reclaim precious hours for yourself.

Read the rest of this series:

Part 2: Make a Plan

Part 3: Say No

Part 4: Slash Your To-Do List

Part 5: Optimize Planning Time

Part 6: Ditch Homework

Part 7: The Common Core Advantage

Part 8: Leverage Technology

Part 9: On Writing

Part 10: Use Class Time

Links to the 40 Hour Workweek Club are affiliate links. I will earn a commission should you sign up for the club via those links but you won’t pay a dime more. So thanks!

Not Every Lesson is a Lexus

It’s the holiday season, which means you’ve no doubt been reminded about Lexus’s “December to Remember” sales event. The commercials have become as much of a holiday tradition as decorating trees, lighting menorahs, and racking up consumer debt.

I am sure it’s nice to own a Lexus. They seem like very fine automobiles. You can get one with steering assist, intelligent high-beam headlamps, a center-console app suite that allows you to check Facebook or local fuel prices, parking assist systems, ambient interior lighting, and genuine wood accents, among many other options.

Sounds nice.

But nobody really needs a Lexus.

I have a car. It is not a Lexus. It’s old, paid for, and gets decent gas mileage. Most importantly, it reliably gets me where I need to go. Sure, the other stuff would be nice, but if the car doesn’t run, none of those options are going to matter.

It reminds me of lesson planning. Teachers sometimes get the message that every lesson has to be a Lexus. Teacher preparation programs are guilty. So are professional books on the topic. If you search online for lesson plan templates, you’ll get things like this (obviously created by someone who either never taught or who dropped dead from exhaustion):

Lots of features. But none of them matter if kids don’t learn what they’re supposed to learn.

Not every lesson has to be a Lexus. Most of the time, a reliable old beast is just fine. Here’s an example:

For the past couple of years, I’ve taught force and motion. One of the standards is for students to be able to understand the concept of balanced and unbalanced forces.

I thought tug-of-war would be perfect. So the first year I taught it, I planned out everything. I thought of the contests students would have and tried to push them into thinking of the same ones (shoes vs. socks, boys vs. girls, left hand vs. right hand, etc.). I decided on the teams ahead of time. I booked the gym and secured the rope. I typed up a list of expectations for behavior and we went over them before going to the gym. I noted what vocabulary I wanted to use with students. I created a worksheet for students to record the results, write down observations and explanations, and note any questions they still had.  I created a rubric so I could grade them on their understanding of the concept. That lesson was a Lexus, baby!

And it went fine. But man, I spent a lot of time creating it. Which, if you’ve ever read this blog before, you know how I feel about that.

Teachers sometimes forget there are trade-offs to every decision. Sure, you can spend an hour designing and preparing for a single lesson. But is that the best use of your time? Are there ways you can cut your prep time so you have more time for other things, including your personal life? Will spending an extra 30 minutes designing a lesson actually lead to more learning? How much more? Is that much worth it?

Does every lesson need to be a Lexus?

We still do the tug-of-war lesson, but these days it takes about ten minutes of planning. The lesson is more like my actual car now. Not as impressive to outsiders but it gets the job done. After all, students just needed to understand the concept of balanced and unbalanced forces. Not exactly rocket science.

Instead of thinking of the experiments and trying to guide students to them, I just let the kids think of them to start with. This past year, they came up with one-arm vs two-arms and facing forward vs. facing backward, two ideas I wouldn’t have thought of.

Instead of creating a worksheet, they just take a notebook to the gym and write down the answers to my prompts and questions after each experiment.

Instead of a list of expectations, I basically have one: Stop on the whistle and then follow directions. If you can’t do that, I won’t pick you to participate in the rope tugging.

Instead of choosing teams ahead of time, I just pick them right there in the gym.

The fancy options aren’t important. The learning is what matters. And asking students to do more while I do less is a good way to increase learning while saving my own time and energy for other things.

Lexus’s slogan is “The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection.” Sounds good. But it’s exhausting. Your lessons can always be better. You can always do more. There are always more features you can add. But sometimes, you just need the thing to get you where you’re going.


New Teachers Are Getting Screwed


The most recent data show that 10% of new teachers quit rather than return for a second year of teaching. Over their first five years, 17% of new teachers leave. It’s a miracle that number is so low. It’s a testament to young teachers’ idealism, optimism, and dedication. America is extremely fortunate that most of them stick it out. It’s often said that teachers don’t go into education for the money. That teaching is about the outcome, not the income. It’s a damn good thing. Because our new teachers are getting screwed.

I started teaching in the fall of 2000. I couldn’t locate any pay stubs from that year, but I did find my 2001 W-2, which was the first fiscal year that I earned a full salary. As you can see, my gross pay was $30,358.

Below you will find the current salary schedule for the district where I started my career. This year, a first-year teacher is earning $32,981.

That’s an eight percent increase over 18 years.

Eight percent.

In 18 years.

Let’s put that in context.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, inflation rose at a rate of 2.09% per year from 2000 to 2017. Prices this year are 42.2% higher than they were in 2000.  If new teacher pay in my old district had kept up with inflation, a first-year teacher would, in 2017, be making $43,108. They’d have 10,000 extra dollars in their pockets. But to make that much, a teacher in that district would need a master’s degree and five years of experience.

While new teacher pay has gone up a paltry eight percent,

Milk has risen 30% in the same span.

College costs are 148% more now than in 2000, which means that our new teachers are having to pay off college loans that are much larger than those teachers who started 18 years ago, but they have just 8% more dollars to do so.

Admission to sporting events is 87% higher.

Airfare is 16% more.

And if reading this makes you want to drown your sorrows, alcohol will cost you 40% more today than it did in 2000.

When young teachers say they have to work a second job, they’re not exaggerating or being dramatic. They aren’t looking for pity. They’re telling the truth. New teachers have been given a raw deal.

But It’s Worse Than That

If we can’t or won’t pay new teachers a reasonable income, we could at least make their sacrifice worth it. We could tell them, “Look, we know this sucks right now, but it’s going to get a lot better. If you stick it out for three years, you’ll see a significant bump in pay.” But if my former district is at all representative of other districts — and I have no reason to think it isn’t — then that’s not the case. After three years in that district, a teacher who has not earned a master’s degree will earn just $36,496.

We could offer them more security. We could tell them, “Hey, prove you can do the job for five years, and after that, we’ll mostly leave you alone. We’ll check in every once in a while to make sure you haven’t thrown in the towel, but if you have enough dedication to struggle through five extremely challenging and poorly compensated years, we’re going to trust that your heart is in the right place and that you know what you’re doing. No formal evaluation, no stupid effectiveness ratings. More trust and autonomy. That’s the prize at the end of the tunnel.”

But we don’t do that, either.

Instead, we subject new teachers to unfair evaluations that only exist because of the presumption of suckiness that pervades all of education. Never mind that these evaluations are based on cruddy data and subjective observations with no evidence of validity. Even if we had wonderful tools with which to measure teachers, we’d still be screwing our newest ones. Almost no teacher is adequately prepared to step into the classroom. You learn how to do this job on the job. But teacher evaluation systems don’t recognize this. They expect new teachers to be just as effective as ten-year veterans. They’re judged on the exact same criteria with the exact same scales. And if they’re not as good as someone who’s had ten or twenty years to hone their craft, well, too bad, so sad, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

And Then We Make It Worse

The job is extremely hard, and it’s harder for new teachers. Nearly everything is foreign. In addition to the challenges of leading their own classroom, they’re deluged with district policies, laws they never studied in college but with which they must comply, new technology they’re expected to use with little or no training, a curriculum they’ve never seen, abstruse health insurance plans, and the unwritten norms that are part of every organization.

On top of that, new teachers often feel or are made to feel like they have to prove themselves. In spite of the fact that they knowingly took an extremely demanding job for little pay, some administrators have the audacity to question their commitment. New teachers are encouraged to start before or after school clubs, to join committees, and to attend extra-curricular events, in order to demonstrate their dedication to a job that fewer and fewer college graduates even want.

We ought to be taking every step possible to keep these teachers in the classroom. Instead, we’re doing very little to prevent them from bolting. We take bright, enthusiastic young people who chose a career that pays them peanuts compared to what their college roommates will earn and we frustrate them, exhaust them, and exploit them.

If we don’t want to inject the public school system with more money so new teachers can earn a respectable salary that, at a minimum, keeps up with inflation, we can at least show some gratitude to the people who go into teaching and stick around long enough to make an impact, and eventually, a living. If you work with a young teacher, thank them for hanging in there.

And maybe buy them a drink. Lord knows they can’t afford to buy their own.


Other articles:

What’s Wrong With “Doing What’s Best for Kids”

Every Student An Athlete (ESAA)

Why You Shouldn’t Care About Your Teacher Evaluation


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