John Owens in his book, Confessions of a Bad Teacher, shares that "America's public school teachers are being loudly and unfairly blamed for the failure of our nation's public schools." As a 2012 nominee for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching and a veteran of public and private schools for the last twenty years, I have to agree but I was glad to hear someone else say it in print.
The vast majority of teachers are working overtime without the tools or budget to manage the plethora of issues inside and outside the classroom. On top of that, administrators who only compound the situation by micromanaging the wrong things make the lives of teachers completely untenable with their lack of support.
Most teaching preparation programs including the one Mr. Owens attended do not adequately prepare anyone for life in the classroom. For many beginning teachers, "It was as though I had just joined the circus as an apprentice clown and was immediately required to juggle plates, bowling pins, butcher's knives, and axes all day long while walking along a tightrope in midair." Teachers make more decisions per hour than any other job including what to do with a student who falls behind, manage students with learning or emotional problems, tailor each lesson every day to up to 125 students or more who are somewhere between illiterate and highly gifted.
Sadly some administrators, students and parents instead of partnering with teachers, blame "teachers which is easier than doing a massive system overhaul."
We need "teachers who can present a passion for the greatness and potential of learning and the greatness and potential of America." I believe John Owens wanted to be one of those people. His unsuccessful attempt to complete one year in the classroom paints an ugly and honest picture of life in many American schools today. The statistics from the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future show that his experience is not unique as "in urban districts, close to 50 percent of newcomers leave the profession during their first five years of teaching."
Many non-teachers claim that teaching is an easy life with long vacations. However, as Owens shares his daily routine it is a job way past full time hours, "I spent virtually every waking hour -- 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. -- all week long on my teacher duties. Lessons, backup lessons, tutoring students during lunch and after school, PowerPoints, grading, inputting data, inputting more data, meeting with parents, observing experienced teachers to learn their techniques, meeting with my bosses, updating databases, writing reports, and trying to get help from someone for the struggling students in my classes." All teachers are familiar with the many hours required to keep lessons, grades and life engaging and organized.
Most of the teachers I have worked with have been caring and concerned both with doing a great job and meeting the needs of each student. However, "every second of the day was filled with demands and -- sadly -- students whose needs still weren't being addressed despite all the efforts I could put in." Even with the frustrations of not being able to do enough, Owens wishes to be a better teacher and contribute to his students and society but the principal is not interesting in supporting his contributions as a new teacher.
Owens creates an enthusiastic response from his students but he is reprimanding for his class being too noisy. He has many meetings and moments with the principal as he is warned that he will receive an unsatisfactory rating for his first year skills. He learns that "inspiring, empowering, really teaching these students" is not enough.
Many teachers are leaving the profession, as "America is demanding too much from its teachers without giving them the proper support to educate students effectively. Commitment, caring, pushing for results, and putting in a full work's day no longer seem to be enough...Often, I felt like a soldier dropped behind enemy lines with nothing more than orders. No weapon. No helmet. No hope of reinforcements." I was disappointed and frustrated to learn about his challenges, and it reminded me of many situations and schools were I have been forced to work with incompetent management.
Students want to share themselves and deserve teachers who can be present and focus on them from "Rikkie, the bright, defiant ninth grader, who did a long piece about how prison isn't so bad to a ninth-grade girl wrote about the day she saw her father get arrested in the neighborhood check-cashing store." Students need caring supportive teachers, not teachers who feel threatened that they will lose their job for showing enthusiasm and initiative. Teachers need to work in an environment where they can thrive.
In Los Angeles, new teachers and old can find mentorship and engaging lessons with the Los Angeles Science Teachers Network. In response to an overwhelming situation in 2009, I created this network for professional development, support and camaraderie. Administrators cannot do everything and we all must participate to improve learning for the children. Do not listen to the blame. Do something about it. We are each responsible to do what we can. Write a blog, start a network, help a child and find a way to feel supported in the classroom. America needs you.
About the Author: Lisa Niver Rajna was a 2012 nominee for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching. She was the first teacher to appear on Career Day. She and her husband George are on a career break sharing their world adventures on We Said Go Travel.