Over the holidays I got the chance to catch up with my sister who was an outstanding teacher in Pasadena and is now a mom, teaching part-time in the Central Valley in California. She teaches math to honors students as well as those who are several grade levels behind. She told me during the winter break: “I would never go back into teaching full time. It’s an impossible job.” Then we talked about all the things that made it difficult for her to be an effective teacher.
My sister is not the only teacher feeling more than a little dismayed. The Washington Post recently ran a blog post by Ellie Herman, a television writer/producer turned teacher, on why teachers are “demoralized.”
In the post, Herman—who taught for six years in a South Los Angeles charter school—attributes such low morale to three primary factors and suggests ways to improve teachers’ outlook on their job. The first she says is that teacher training is “pathetically inadequate,” and doesn’t prepare most teachers for the communities in which they will teach. She recommends all new teachers spend a year in the classroom of a mentor teacher in the community where they plan to teach.
The second reason teachers are miserable, is that they get such little support from administrators or colleagues. If someone observes their classroom, it’s usually for evaluation purposes, she writes. All teachers, regardless of how long they’ve been teaching, need a mentor.
Finally, she says teachers don’t have the resources they need to do a good job—which includes everything from having a reliable wireless connection to having counselors who can help students dealing with traumatic experiences. As it is now, Herman writes, working conditions often stand in way of teachers making a rationale decision about whether they’re right for the job.
When I first started working at the Gates Foundation, one the ways I used to talk about my work and our investments was to tell people we are trying to “make great teaching possible.” Clearly, we have much work to do. The conditions and the supports are not there for teachers…yet.
The good news is that while I was disheartened by sister’s comments, she is still teaching, albeit part time. She’s still making a huge difference in her students’ lives. Fortunately, there are plenty of others who also want to keep at it and are part of efforts to improve conditions in which teachers work. I met one of these teachers this week. She’s an extraordinary 5th grade teacher in Tennessee who I wanted to offer a job to at the Gates Foundation, but I know her heart is in the classroom. I have to admire that, and it makes me want to work even harder!