Stumble, Trip, Fall, Quit

When I was teaching, I thought that many of my students’ ideas about and impressions of teachers came from childhood and had that veneer of invisibility parenting has when you’re on the receiving end–clean clothes appear in drawers, cooked food put on the table, empty ice trays filled, glasses and plates suddenly clean and stacked in the cabinets. Students do not see class preparation, the number of books or articles you read, the notes you take and throw away just like The Girl rarely sees me totally sweating the details of motherhood. (Well, mostly rarely.) So my students were baffled, some even offended, when I was busy or couldn’t (or wouldn’t) grade their 2-weeks-late paper right away or they had to wait 2 weeks for me to fill out a recommendation form. They thought I was just dissing them, that I sat in my office looking out of my ivy-framed window arranging for maid service and ordering cases of champagne and Prada (or whatever the hell they talked about and carried) bags from Neiman Marcus. Their ideas of being a professor were insultingly simple-minded and student-obsessed, like children who cannot conceive of their parents as anything but parents and are shocked to find they like, for example, Justin Timberlake or Twinkies or crashed a few cars in their day. Parenting is hard. Teaching is also hard. And much of that hard work is done out of the presence of the recipients. If it looks like you’re working too hard, you lose face and effectiveness. Like some of the best writers look like they could never make a mistake, typo or bad sentence. We do not see the 500 discarded pages, only the 200-or-so that end up published. If it looks like you’re working or trying too hard, you’ve failed.

I heard Matt Roberts’ commentary on Morning Edition after dropping off The Girl. Like many new teacher recruits before and after him, he quit. His principal told him not to see it as a failure but it is hard, he says, for him not to. He wanted to be part of the change and recovery, he wanted to “make a difference,” he wanted to be part of the healing and rebuilding of local schools and, by extension, the lives of our (yes, our) children. But something didn’t click, couldn’t work long term. Matt was being too hard on himself by listing the on-the-ground, day-to-day problems of life here as “excuses,” even though it did make a nice frame for his commentary and gave a nice little chime at the end. Unremediated schools, blocks upon blocks of unremediated houses, rents and insurance rates that have doubled or tripled or more, what money the metro area has coming to it unfairly distributed or just held up in squabbling–these aren’t “excuses,” like you don’t feel like going to the store with your mother, but realities, harsh ones that do have negative effects and pretending they don’t or aren’t supposed to or attributing it all to personal failure is counterproductive enough to drive people mad (as in insanity), distortingly angry and/or out of the region entirely. We do no one a favor by asking for superhuman tolerance, work, faith, turning of cheeks or eyes. Matt says New Orleanians are “sick of…excuses.” We are sick in general. And looking around, there are blocks and blocks of reasons to be and remain so for quite some time.


Teaching is hard. Only students, the recipients, think it’s easy. And in a “system” with this many challenges, even more, amazingly, than before The Floods, teaching is even harder. No amount of youthful or mid-career-change enthusiasm mutes that. And in challenging school systems (much less a “system” like this one), turnover is high. Like others, I am quite happy about the influx of the young and energetic, the dedicated and devoted but I do not believe that this influx will somehow be immune to turnover (and that turnover can take 3 days or 2-3 years) or will somehow solve it.

Concentrated poverty poured challenges on the Waverly community [a struggling Hartford, CT school] but spared Marlborough [a more successful suburban CT school]. Semisaints like Lois Luddy [3rd grade teacher at Waverly] and James Thompson [principal of Waverly] bore it brilliantly. More ordinary people stumbled, tripped, fell, and quit (Eaton 275).

We cannot assume or unwisely hope that this influx is full of semisaints. Some people will stumble, some sooner than others, some later than others, and some of those who stumble later will take some folks with them in one way or another. That’s not an excuse but a reality. You can prepare for reality but not excuses.

Also see:

Teacher Attrition: A Costly Loss to the Nation and to the States, August 2005 (PDF)

Among teachers who transferred schools, lack of planning time (65 percent), too heavy a workload (60 percent), problematic student behavior (53 percent), and a lack of influence over school policy (52 percent) were cited as common sources of dissatisfaction.Many teachers who see no hope for change leave the profession altogether. While it is true that teachers of all ages and in all kinds of schools leave the profession each year, it is also true that

  • the rate of attrition is roughly 50 percent higher in poor schools than in wealthier ones;
  • and teachers new to the profession are far more likely to leave than are their more experienced counterparts.

Teacher Turnover Leaves Void in US Schools, August 27, 2007

Some educators say it is the confluence of such retirements with the departure of disillusioned young teachers that is creating the challenge. In addition, higher salaries in the business world and more opportunities for women are drawing away from the field recruits who might in another era have proved to be talented teachers with strong academic backgrounds.

“The problem is not mainly with retirement,” said Thomas Carroll, the president of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. “Our teacher preparation system can accommodate the retirement rate. The problem is that our schools are like a bucket with holes in the bottom, and we keep pouring in teachers.”

The commission has calculated that these days nearly a third of all new teachers leave the profession after just three years, and that after five years almost half are gone – a higher turnover rate than in the past.

Eaton, Susan. The Children in Room E4: American Education on Trial. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin. 2007.

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One Response to Stumble, Trip, Fall, Quit

  1. liprap says:

    Living here is gonna take a certain superhuman effort and stamina for many, many years to come. People will most certainly fall by the wayside in their efforts to do the right thing by children here. Infrastructure problems x 1,000,000 = bone-crushing, mind-numbing, head-crushing-against-a-wall work. Some will throw up their hands and walk away, sanity barely there. They need to heal. It is only natural.

Comments welcomed. Really.