Monday, April 27, 2015

All good things...*

Today I did one of the harder things I've had to do over my four years of teaching.   I told my IB 1 juniors that I wouldn't be returning next year.   I told them, truthfully, that leaving them was the hardest part of this decision for me.  Partially because they have been a joy to teach this year, and partially because I feel like I'm deserting them mid-stream, half-way through the Herculean task that is the two-year IB Physics course.

I teared up a little, but did not start bawling.  Victory?

And thus, I become a statistic.  One of those 40-50% of teachers who quit in their first five years.

So... why?  As I told multiple people today, it's complicated.  

One way I've come to summarize it to myself and family and friends is, "I was too tired, too much of the time this year, to feel the love that until now has compensated for the lack of financial compensation."

This year was, in many ways, too big a bite for me to chew.  It was my first year with three preps, and all of them had high demands.  The new IB 2 prep easily sucked up two hours of prep for every hour I was teaching it in the classroom, as I worked really hard to teach my students advanced physics topics I hadn't deeply considered since undergrad, and to faithfully implement the IB Internal Assessment labs in a way that wouldn't hurt all my students tremendously when I get moderated.  The IB 1 prep required considerable rejiggering due to a revised IB curriculum and incorporating the Modeling Physics ideas I learned last summer.  And the Physics I class was also considerably rejiggered thanks to the Modeling training, and due to a school-wide push to implement the IB Middle Years Program in our ninth and tenth grade classes.

I tracked my time for most of January through March, and found that I was averaging 65 hours per week on high weeks and 55 hours per week on "low" weeks.  The number of times I broke down crying in front of my 2 year-old daughter because I was just so tired and had more work to do that night was more than one (and therefore, unacceptably high).  Every single vacation this year, I'd reach a point a few days before vacation and think, "There's so much to do on vacation, I might as well not bother going on vacation."  (Over a week break in February, I "only" worked 20 hours!)  The number of days I did absolutely no work between August and March could be counted on one hand, including Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and a few days over winter break that I was very ill.

I take full responsibility for my share of failing to somehow moderate that workload or manage it better.  There are many successful teachers at my school who show that it can be done (although the other IB Science teachers were also running pretty ragged this year).  But I just can't anymore.

So, primarily, I'm tired.  And, after four years of being continuously really tired during the school year, and then also working some over the summer to try to moderate the next school year (with little success), I've lost hope.  We may be almost at the top of the mountain and about to slide down the other side to the easy living of repeated preps, but I've lost the energy and the emotional fire required to get the rest of the way there.  I've rarely felt so literally "burned out" before.

The article I linked to above has the following quote:
With the exception of retirement, studies suggest that there are only a handful of overarching factors that push teachers out the door—family or personal reasons, other career opportunities, salary, administrative support and overall job dissatisfaction. These are largely the same issues that arose in my interviews. Some were wholly unhappy or drained and left in pursuit of another career completely, some wanted more money; some wanted both.
I cannot fault the administrative support at my school.  My principals and head teacher have been, generally, excellent.  And I also cannot fault my family for supporting me fully right up until the moment I broke, even though it meant my husband has been doing far more than an equal share of childcare and household management to enable my teaching habit.

However, money is a part of it.  I feel like saying this makes me an unworthy teacher and an unworthy Christian.  Love is supposed to be enough.   (And it was, until I got too tired.)   But while I felt respected by my administration and my parents and students, I did not feel respected by the state legislature in the way it has chosen to fund K-12 education in this state for the past four years.  And I reached a point where I said to myself and my husband (who was in full agreement), "If I'm going to work this much, I need to be paid much more."  I worked similar hours as a business consultant, but was paid three times as much.  That money made the time feel like an investment in my family's future -- in financial flexibility, in the ability to buy a new car when the old one died, in the ability to hire help to clean the house and pay for quality child care, in the ability to save for college.  

When I stopped working in business and became a teacher, I knew I would take a huge pay cut.  However, I naively looked at the salary schedules posted on every school district's website and thought to myself, "well, at least there's reasonable growth over the first four years".  I failed to pay enough attention to the political and economic climate.  After four years of teaching, I am making almost exactly what I thought I would be making the first year (before I realized I had already taken a pay cut before even signing the contract).   In that time, there has been a big pay cut, one compensatory raise back to where I started, and flat salaries since (accompanied by ever increasing special "teacher taxes" from the state for retiree benefits for which I, and 40-50% of my peers, will never qualify).  This puts my salary about 20% lower than I thought I would be at this point.  And the day I broke was the day that I found that there would probably be no raises for most teachers at my school again next year.

I am developing a depressing theory:  teachers are the new UAW workers.  Which is to say, there are two classes of UAW workers - more senior "Tier 1" workers who get much higher wages than more junior "Tier 2" workers who do the same work, side by side, on the assembly lines.  This system is the logical result of a revenue crunch (created in the auto industry by the 2007 recession, created in education by the state legislature's fiscal priorities) in a collective bargaining environment where it is much easier to agree to sacrifices on behalf of future hires than current employees.  This played out in my first district-level teaching contract re-negotiation as the addition of several new, shallower "steps" in the most junior years of the salary schedule, as well as a new lower overall maximum salary level that would only apply to junior employees.  This plays out at the state level as the legislature has gradually reduced retiree benefits for new hires while increasing employee contributions and costs for those benefits (the days of cushy teacher pensions in Michigan are gone for new hires).  And this plays out in news stories like this one, whose headline should be "Next Year's Budget balanced in the face of flat funding because well-paid senior teachers retire to be replaced by new, lower-paid junior teachers, everyone else's salary to be frozen."

Business-consultant-me thinks she understands what's happening.  Idealist-me is furious that the state seems to feel that the education of all our children is such a low priority that they refuse to invest in the amazing professionals who have dedicated so much time and energy to this work.  And pragmatist-me knows I need to get out before my bitterness at the situation pollutes the work I do with students.
“Respected, well-paid lines of work do not have shortages”
And, frankly, other career opportunities don't hurt.  In the week I left school thinking "I'm done" a friend said, "I'll hire you!"  (to do what you'd like to do... for approximately double the salary).  It is a continual source of amazement to me that so little of the dialog around retaining high quality teachers (especially in STEM fields) involves comparing market rates (and market working conditions) for people of similar talents in other fields.  (It probably does not help that I live with such a comparison -- my husband and I both have STEM Ph.D.s from the same prestigious research institution.  He makes the same amount of money I do for literally half the hours.)

A big part of me is going to dearly miss being in a classroom with students, thinking about science, helping them learn to question each other, build their understanding, identify weaknesses in their own and others' arguments, and together creating models of how the universe works.  The rest of me wants to sleep for a month.  And has heard rumors of this thing called a "40 hour work week" and would like to try it.  If the Michigan State Legislature ever decides to fund teaching in a respectful way again, maybe in a way that lets work-loads approach sustainable levels with competitive salaries, please come re-recruit me.   In the meantime, I think there are some databases and spreadsheets with my name on them.

*All good things...

1 comment:

  1. This is so sad to me and yet I completely get where you are coming from. You are much braver than me! I know the classroom is losing an amazing teacher, but I can not fault your decision in the slightest! Good luck in the future!