George Lucas Educational Foundation

How the Education System Fails Educators and Students, and 5 Ways We Can Fix it

How the Education System Fails Educators and Students, and 5 Ways We Can Fix it

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Half of all teachers will drop out of the teaching field within the first five years according to education scholar and education professor Richard Ingersoll. HALF! That means all the people you may have sat with in education classes, or have worked with in your school, half of those people will leave education within the first five years. There must be something behind that number. There must be some common thread that accounts for half of all teachers to leave the field. There is indeed an answer and it lays within the actual system of education. It lays within the processes that the system creates. These processes are precisely the reason so many teachers can no longer put up with the job of being an educator.

I am not a teacher. I have never been a teacher in the traditional sense. Nor do I ever want to be a teacher in elementary or secondary education. In fact, I am a school social worker. I help support teachers who struggle with students with behavioral issues and bridge the gap between school and home life. Although, I am not a teacher, I have watched my colleagues, friends, and even a couple boyfriends, be chewed up and spit out by the system of education. I have seen them work tirelessly, go above and beyond, and do everything they can to be the best for their students while receiving no accolades, recognition, or even the slightest thank you for their hard work and dedication. Yet they continue, drudge on, and they come in every day or almost every day with a smile on their faces and a spring in their step. Until one day they don’t anymore. The pressure starts to affect them.

Administration and school districts place an enormous amount of pressure on educators to make sure their students achieve. From the top down, everyone can feel the pressure of raising academic test scores.  Yet, year after year this system of measuring achievement through test scores has proven to be insufficient for the success of students beyond the doors of a school building. However, teachers are still expected to make sure year after year their students have high scores on the prescribed standardized tests. If they do not show growth, they are labeled as a bad teacher, someone who cannot teach, and someone who should maybe find a better fit elsewhere. If they do see improvement from year to year , they are not given the recognition they deserve to sustain all the effort they put forth to make it happen. If they did show improvement, it better be in all areas and not just one or two.

This pressure creates an educational environment that only sets teachers, and therefore students, up to fail. The pressure of raising test scores leaves no room for a personal life with teachers. There are lessons to plan, papers to grade, behavior problems to solve, parents to communicate with, pacing guides to follow, lesson objectives to write, standards to align, bulletin boards to make, assessments to review, tests to prepare for, not to mention kids to coach, tutoring to do, and after school activities to lead.  The life of a teacher is just that; their life. The person is not separate from the profession, because the profession will not allow it. I have seen teachers work on average 10-16 hour days depending on the time of the year. With a work schedule like that, you know they care deeply about the success of their students and quite frankly are doing the best they can. That’s not to say that we do not have teachers who are extremely negative, only work during school hours, and complain non-stop. Yes, there are teachers who are burned out. However, I beg to ask the question, is this teacher burned out from the students, or are they burned out from the enormous pressure that is put on them to raise test scores? Although, people outside the public education system would like to think, as educators, that having summers off with a winter break and spring break would be more than enough to make up for the excessive hours they put in; people outside public education do not understand that those are not breaks. They are time to catch up on planning, grading, taking on extra projects, doing professional developments, and looking ahead to prepare for what is coming next. The workload is not sustainable. Without relaxed, recuperated, and rejuvenated teachers, we will never see the test scores we want to see and we will lose our experienced, great teachers to burn out and other, less stressful career paths.

Due to the demanding pressure put on them with the limited time they have, teachers are not given the tools to teach the whole child. Although I know many many of my coworkers would love to focus on not only the academic side of a student but also the social, emotional, and familial side of a child as well; there is no time. The pressure of the academic content is so intense that there leaves almost no time to even think about anything else. While we know we will produce more successful members of society if we are able to teach social and emotional skills such as self-awareness, self-regulation, and social skills; teachers find themselves with no time to do it.

Finally, and most importantly, teachers are not given the knowledge nor ongoing skills to help support our highest need students. We know that almost half of all students are in poverty and that number continues to rise. In an inner city school comprised of mostly minority students who come from impoverished backgrounds; teachers are not given the opportunity to learn the best way to support these students. Racial, cultural, and class differences arise and students cannot find ways to relate to students just as teachers cannot find a way to relate academic content to students unless they come from a similar background. If we do not prepare our teachers through formal education and we do not find the time to provide professional developments on topics such as these, we will never close the achievement gap. The system will to fail its educators in this way.

However dire as this may all sound, there is hope. Changes can be made to better this system, and it starts with just one voice, one person in the school that can be a model, an advocate, and an inspiration to other teachers to join in on small changes that add up to bigger and bigger changes. Here are five ways you can become the person that helps to change the system that has failed educators for too long.

  1. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Over and over I hear teachers talk about thinking about students all the time, going over and over solutions in their head to help fix the problems they see in class, and frequently I hear them talk about dreaming about students. That somehow by mulling the student’s problems over and over and over again in their head is going to somehow make them disappear. One of the greatest things someone told me is that you did everything you can, you are not in control of their lives and you should be thankful for that. We all feel responsible for the success or failure of a student. What we often forget is that, we cannot control everything, and therefore; their success or failure is not a result of us as a person but a working of many moving parts. We cannot control what happens all the time and that’s okay. We do not have to blame ourselves when our students fail, because we know that it has to do with more than just what we as a teacher taught them. It is a combination of everything in that child’s life that we often are unable to see. Once we are able to let go of this idea that we control a student’s success or failure, it gives us the freedom to take more risks, be more creative, and think outside the box to make our teaching better. We must not lose sight of the growth we see.
  2. Don’t pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first.  This statement is similar to what they tell you on airplanes. Put your oxygen mask on first before you help others around you. A work life balance may seem like a foreign concept to you, but give yourself permission to stop thinking about work and do things for yourself. To fill up your cup you could work out, spend time with friends or family, spend time with your dog or cat, have a drink (sometimes), eat healthier, get more sleep, start a hobby, color, draw, or anything that helps you feel fulfilled besides work.  If you start to fill your time with non-work activities, it will be much easier to stop thinking about work. The reality is that if we learn to relax and de stress we will be better teachers for our kids in the long run which helps us raise test scores. You could even make it a weekly goal that you accomplish to try to take care of yourself first.
  3. Support those around you. If you are a teacher, find ways to thank your colleagues. This could include a thank you note, a shout out board, an simple email. If you are an administrator, try to create a culture of support by recognizing your teachers on a regular basis. Personal, specific feedback is the best way to keep teachers motivated. Find ways to lighten the load for them whenever you can. Give them time to collaborate and learn from each other in meetings such as professional learning communities. Be as transparent as possible. Over communicate as much as possible, so teachers feel like they know what is going on. Find ways to create trust and autonomy. If they trust you as a leader they will follow. If you give them autonomy, the will feel more fulfilled and more likely stay longer. Seek their input and feedback and follow through with things you say. We often find it easier to praise students, but adults need just as much specific, positive praise and recognition. Remember we shoot for 4 positives to 1 negative with students. It should be the same with colleagues.
  4. Increase success by teaching to the whole child. Teach about different social skills such as communication, problem solving, communication, kindness. Teach about emotions and ways to deal with them. You could have a weekly skill you work on throughout the day. You could create a class meeting in the morning that would last only 10-15 minutes to discuss these topics, and then reinforce them throughout the day or week. If you feel like this is not your area of expertise, seek out your counselor, psychologist, or if you’re really lucky, you’re social worker. Many teachers think that this is not their place, but unfortunately we are not doing enough in this area. There has been much research that has come out about how employers will not hire people not because they lack the knowledge, but they lack the capacity to work with others, communicate, problem solve, and collaborate. Students cannot be successful in life if they don’t learn to self-regulate and interact socially with peers and non-peers in a positive way.
  5. Start small and build. It does not matter what aspect of the system you are passionate about changing. The reality is that we must start small. Pick one thing, do it every day or every week, and watch as people start to join you. Change takes time and in order to affect big change we must start small and add people to our movement. Persuade people to be on your side by building positive relationships with everyone in your building. Make sure people know what’s in it for them and that can be a big motivator to get them to join your side.

The fact that half of all teachers leave the profession within four years is an alarming statistic. We have discussed reasons why the system of education fails educators. However, there are several ways, both big and small, that we can start to change this system. Whether you think you can or you can’t, you are right. It only takes one person to make a small change that becomes a bigger and bigger change. Be patient. Be steady. Stay on course. Remember to take care of yourself first.


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Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Thanks for these great suggestions for helping teachers support one another (and ourselves) and avoid burnout! There are certainly many factors that make our work unusually challenging. But I do want to point out that the claim that "half of all teachers leave" probably isn't accurate. I agree that we need to do more to support teachers (especially new teachers), but we need to be careful about how we present the challenge. Recent research says the attrition rate of new teachers is closer to 17%, not 50% (https://edsource.org/2015/half-of-new-teachers-quit-profession-in-5-year...). But I do appreciate your empathy and helpful suggestions!

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