I am new to Manhattan Digest, so it’s time I formally introduce myself to our readers. My name is Andrew Savage and for the past six years, I have been a proud high school teacher. It has been my pride and joy to watch students learn, grow, and flourish. I have never doubted that my students learned and considered their experiences in my class valuable. Every measurable indicator such as test scores and observations from peers and supervisors have confirmed this. I love what I do which is why I feel it’s time to stand up for my colleagues and public education here in New York City and across this nation. Our profession is in a state of crisis where the demands and pressures of teaching have overshadowed the joy and fulfillment that we get out of doing our jobs.
All careers have obstacles and challenges. However, the challenges that teachers face come from a system that is turning increasingly draconian and sets our best and brightest teachers up to fail. Teachers, especially those in urban settings, have to contend with often-unrealistic expectations and lack the resources and the support to even attempt to meet those expectations. In the mad rush to bring student test scores up and “turn schools around,” teachers have been entrenched in endless and redundant paperwork while teaching classes, being observed by supervisors in those classes, and remaining in constant communication with families about student progress. Inevitably, teachers experience burnout from an insurmountable workload.
Teachers are made to feel guilty for not spending every waking moment of our lives on improving our pedagogy and fine-tuning our practice in the classroom while other parts of our lives are neglected. Our relationships with friends, family, and significant others suffer and when the other parts of our identity are neglected, the quality of our work suffers. While all teachers do work at home like grading papers, it is important that it not be an inordinate amount and that we make time for ourselves and all of the parts of our lives that make us who we are. However, teachers are now suddenly questioning their plans for the future because they simply do not see how anything else can fit into their lives while they teach during the day and take bucket loads of work home with them at night. One colleague of mine recently questioned whether they could realistically have a family while meeting the growing demands and expectations of teaching and many parents are opting to leave the profession as it is becoming increasingly difficult to be a good parent while meeting the crushing demands of a job that pays little and is often thankless.
The consequences of the burnout factor extend far beyond just the permeation of the personal lives of teachers. These suffocating constraints and conditions of teachers does a huge disservice to the highest need students as special education teachers and teachers of students who are English Language Learners are twice as likely to leave the profession within years of starting than their general education counterparts. NPR reported last year that enrollments in teacher training programs at the college level are at historic lows and the nation as a whole is experiencing a teacher shortage. There is clearly a tight correlation between the conditions I outlined above and the increase in teacher turnover as well as the decline in numbers of those entering the profession.
Some teachers leave on their own volition after five years. However, others simply are not offered tenure or their probationary service is discontinued. The reasons for denial of tenure and discontinuance are sometimes justified but can more frequently be attributed to school districts having a quota like system to see how many teachers they can compel to exit the profession regardless of the quality of their practice. These facts fly in the face of the mainstream media narrative that teachers “have a job for life.”
That brings us into the myth perpetuated by the media that tenure is a guaranteed job for life. Tenure is not a guaranteed job for life. It simply means that if a teacher is fired, a process is conducted to validate that they are being fired for just causes and that they are not the victims of the political agendas of their supervisors or the subject of personal retribution. However, tenure does not guarantee that the process is fair as tenured teachers are often targeted either because their salaries are too high or they spoke up for the interests of their students and against the interests of their administration. Teachers who are placed in a predicament like this have to resort to paying exorbitant legal fees to defend themselves against a surgical and bureaucratic beast intent on destroying their career and proclaiming that they are doing so “for the sake of the children.”
Teachers do not dispute that we should be held to high standards and we proudly hold ourselves to such standards. We are reflective enough to know when our strategies work and we become our own worst critics when we know that we need to improve our instruction. However, those standards should be set with the conditions and constraints of all of the stakeholders of public education in mind. Teachers are profoundly demoralized because we are being held accountable for social and economic conditions beyond our control such as poverty, crime, drug addiction, and institutional racism. Teachers have become the scapegoat for the problems that society can’t or won’t solve and that is not fair or just.
Earlier this week, my school had our all important school wide evaluation and one of my classes was chosen for evaluators to visit and observe. All went smoothly and it was a valuable experience for my students. However, once evaluators left my classroom, one of my students called me over to their desk and quietly said, “Don’t worry, Mr. Savage, we have your back.” We need to follow that student’s lead and come together to have our teachers’ backs. We need to restore dignity and respect to our profession and stop dehumanizing teachers like our future depends on it because it does.