For the last four years, Beth Sanders has taught ninth and 11th-grade social studies at Tarrant High School in Birmingham, Ala., a school where many students live in poverty. She, too, has to do more to make ends meet, as well as cover her student loans. So after the final bell of the day rings, after she leaves school (a 10 hour day), after grading and lesson plans -- she fills her financial gaps by running a website, tutoring students for the ACTs, and coaching teachers online.
"I don't sleep, I don't get paid enough, and I work too many jobs," Sanders says.
Her work as a teacher is already difficult enough: Her school isn't hitting federal standards established by No Child Left Behind, and performance targets are moving too fast for her special-education and non-English-speaking students.
"We're up against this impossible barrier," she says.
Sanders' concerns reflect those of teachers nationally: As demonstrated by recent survey data, job satisfaction within the profession is at its lowest since the Reagan years. What's at stake is the future of an entire generation, one that's growing up to face a new economic reality that requires a new set of skills. But because of circumstances the students don't control, they might have disaffected teachers carrying them there.
According to MetLife, which interviewed 1,000 K-12 teachers by phone, the number of teachers who reported they were "very satisfied" dropped by 15 points between 2009 and 2011, from 59 to 44 percent. Two surveys that gauged teacher sentiment were commissioned by MetLife and Scholastic/The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, respectively.
Here's why, as teachers tell it: They feel intense scrutiny from parents, school boards, the media and politicians to increase test scores -- and justify their very positions -- but have, at the same time, been asked to do much more with way less. The recession eroded education funding, taking with it school counselors, teacher aides and the feeling of job security that used to come along with the pencils and books in entering the profession. Add to that the fact that the number of kids they are teaching who live in poverty has skyrocketed, bringing out-of-school barriers to making the grade.
And while the goal of education is not to please teachers, stunted morale hurts. The entire enterprise of education depends on the relationship between a child and the person responsible for facilitating learning.
"Being able to focus on the joy of learning with students rather than worrying about getting paid or a pink slip would transform schools into a better learning environment," says Sean Williams, a public high school teacher in Orange County, Calif.
A 2011 Harvard paper found "students who attend schools with more favorable working conditions also achieve greater academic growth." According to the Gates/Scholastic survey, teachers expect an average of only 63 percent of their students to graduate high school ready for college.
Satisfied teachers participate in more aspects of their students' lives, attending more sports games, keeping in touch over the summer, and constantly communicating with their charges by email, the Gates/Scholastic survey reported. Beyond individual teachers' satisfaction rates, morale has enormous ramifications on a workforce that already has a high rate of attrition: According to MetLife, nearly one third of teachers are likely to leave the profession.
In an unscientific poll, 13 teachers across the country interviewed by The Huffington Post gave their job satisfaction an average rating of 6.25 on a scale of one to 10. Teachers connected their dissatisfaction to the overall tone of the national education debate, in addition to specific personal stories. And yet the majority still enjoy what they call the "magic" of their classrooms -- it's usually what happens before and after the bell rings that has them peeved.
Sanders, the Birmingham teacher, knew that long hours and challenging circumstances were part of the job description when she signed up to teach. But now, on top of all of her responsibilities, she has to answer to critics who judge her work according to the high-performance rhetoric proliferated by policymakers. She says she's sick of being evaluated by people who know nothing about her job.
"I wish people who weren’t educators understood the complexity of the career before they discussed it," she says. Sanders often agrees with the chorus of voices that say the profession needs more rigor and evaluations based partly on standardized tests but, she adds, "people just put their opinions out there without going into a classroom."
The general sentiment of the teachers polled and those in the other surveys is that the demands being made on teachers are greater than ever before. Toss in the pressure that, if the students and teachers don't perform, the teachers are out of work.
Many cite pressures to tailor their teaching to such standardized tests. And teachers say they feel like they're under attack -- whether by Republican governors who try to cut their benefits, or by education reformers who insist the country's mediocre international academic standing necessitates a fundamental transformation of the teaching force.
In 2011, a number of factors brought ever more scrutiny -- and ratcheted up pressure -- on teachers. Governors in Ohio and Wisconsin sought to cut teachers' benefits and curtail the bargaining rights of their unions. These changes resulted in massive protests that made national news -- and canceled classes. Schools were closed, teachers fired and test scores generally stagnated. No Child Left Behind's goal of 100 percent proficiency in math and reading by 2014 seemed less and less likely. A huge cheating scandal in Atlanta tainted the virtuous image of apple-bearing educators.
Meanwhile, state legislatures fought over the most technical aspects of the teaching profession, with 35 more states in 2011 tying teacher evaluations to test scores in some way than in 2009. A conservative think tank argued teachers were overpaid. Politicians began grading teachers, and in some cases, encouraged airing the flawed scores in newspapers.
"I feel like I'm all alone," says Amy Bednarz, who teaches English to non-native speakers in a Massachusetts public school. "There's no one to talk with, there's not enough time."
On Thursday, a student stepped off the bus and into her classroom, bawling. Bednarz says it made her feel like "the counselor, the parent, the nurse."
'THE LITTLE THINGS'
In Texas, the Austin Independent School District recently bought a few thousand netbooks to foster digital literacy. When the district lost a sizable amount of state funding -- thanks to a certain failed presidential candidate -- Austin proceeded to lay off its instructional-technology staff, leaving the devices to gather dust in a closet.
"They have nobody to support the implementation," says Scott Floyd, an technology curriculum specialist in Texas's White Oak Independent School District. For the first time ever, the Texas state legislature in 2011 didn't fund population growth in schools, leading to a class-size boom.
As educational need increases, with more students than ever in households with incomes low enough to receive free-or-reduced-price lunch, states are funding education less and less. And though governors are beginning to restore earlier cuts, the federal stimulus funds that have prevented the foundations from crumbling are drying up.
"There's a lot of uncertainty here," says Paul Bruno, an Oakland, Calif., middle-school science teacher. While teaching science insulates Bruno's job from vulnerability, his colleagues are in a state of near panic. "You have no choice but to hope you can keep your job."
Orange County, Calif., where Williams works, faces millions in new cuts. "We've already cut back so much on programs, and we haven't gotten a cost-of-living increase in who knows how long," Williams says. "I don't know what goes next."
Williams also feels the pinch in other ways. "It's the little things that count," he says. "When the custodians don't come in and clean the room on a regular basis, that brings you down."
As teachers are increasingly viewed as a conduit in the escape route from poverty, with some advocates waving around research that shows the earnings difference a good teacher makes for students, such messages don't always go down well with teachers themselves. While advocates say their goals are identifying good teachers, teachers often see such policies as thrusting the weight of external social issues squarely on their shoulders.
According to many educators, some of this research is currently being used to place the blame for society's ills on teachers. But reformers often answer that teachers are using poverty as an excuse for poor performance, tantamount to saying poor kids can't learn -- a line of argument the teachers claim is simplistic.
And that's where the sense of "teacher bashing," as many call it, begins.
"We are being de-professionalized, we are being used as a target," says Kenneth Bernstein, a veteran teacher near Washington, D.C., who blogs on the Daily Kos as TeacherKen. He's reconsidering his options for next year. "We cannot fix the problem that over 20 percent of our students are coming from poor families."
Says William Chamberlain, a teacher in rural Missouri, "We're being blamed by the public for problems out of our control."
But it's not just the teachers who see the polarization. "Teachers are under attack," says Margery Mayer, the president of Scholastic's education arm, who oversaw the latest survey. "I personally find it very disturbing that we're putting teacher evaluations in the newspaper and putting all the blame on them."
Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C. schools chancellor, is often accused of being a "teacher basher." Rhee's evaluation system, IMPACT -- which relies, in part, on test scores -- led to the firing of teachers it found ineffective. Rhee's teacher and principal firings drew enough national attention to land her on the cover of Time magazine, holding a broom -- ostensibly sweeping out the bad teachers.
Even Rhee, who now heads the national lobbying and advocacy group StudentsFirst, is aware of the pall over the profession. Rhee told The Huffington Post that she understands that teachers "feel like they're under attack." But, she adds, "I can't tell you why."
It's a question she often asks teachers. "When I push people on this and say 'who's blaming teachers,' … people won't tell me to my face that they think it's me. Even though I'm sure when someone else is asking them, they say 'Michelle Rhee,' [when I ask them,] they say 'Chris Christie,'" says Rhee.
Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, is perpetually at loggerheads with the state's teachers union. Rhee says she tells teachers to listen closely to Christie. "He blames the teachers union," Rhee says she tells teachers. "I've never in my life heard Chris Christie blame the problems of public education on teachers."
Some teachers would beg to differ. "A lot of people bash teachers unions," says Stephen Lazar, a social-studies high-school teacher in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. "They don’t think they bash teachers, but teachers are the union."
At the same time, teachers are equally dissatisfied with the state of their profession, often agreeing with the policy framework -- if not the specifics and rhetoric -- of the reformers they decry. "There is no one group of people that has more intolerance for ineffective teachers than effective teachers," says Rhee.
Take Bednarz, the Mass. teacher. She's more frustrated than ever, rating her satisfaction as a two out of 10. But that only fuels her desire for change. "I have tenure now," she says, noting that whether she ignores her class or teaches a great lesson, "nothing changes. We need to be evaluated more. I don’t remember the last time I saw my principal."
Sanders, from Birmingham, would agree. "Seniority is an old way of thinking," says Sanders. "Teachers have to change."
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the state where Bednarz teaches.