By Elizabeth Mahi
The number of education majors has dramatically decreased since the 1970s and an increasing number of teachers are leaving the profession.
But why is that? According to an infographic from the Learning Policy Institute, “more than 200,000 teachers leave the profession” each year. And almost two-thirds of those teachers are leaving for reasons besides retirement. After seven years as a public school teacher, I have experienced the many highs and lows of working in education. The lows left me questioning whether or not I chose the right profession. The lows made me understand why some people who dreamt of being teachers left education soon after they entered it. The lows made me understand why less people are becoming education majors. But ultimately, the lows made me understand what needs to change in education and why teachers need to band together to strengthen our profession and our student’s learning.
Here’s my story.
In the spring of 2009, I was about to graduate with my master’s degree in molecular biosciences and bioengineering from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. I had dedicated years of my life to researching how to cultivate algae and cone snails in a laboratory setting.
But honestly, although interesting, conducting research day in and day out was not for me. I wasn’t passionate about it at all. While I’m glad to have had the experience of doing scientific research, the actual work wasn’t fulfilling to me. I was just glad when I completed each requirement because it meant I was that much closer to getting my degree, but there was no validation, no pride for doing it. I actually got most of the thrill from just saying what my master’s degree program was in because people looked at me like I was this huge genius and I loved the ego boost.
Here I was, about to graduate and I literally had no idea what I was meant to do. What was I going to do with my life? I kept hearing my mother’s voice in my head saying, “Become a nurse.” Or “Work at one of those biotech research places.” Or “Get your PhD!” But I didn’t want to do any of those things.
While I was a graduate student, I also worked as a teaching assistant for a biology for non-majors lab. I found that what I truly enjoyed was spending my time planning lessons for my students and helping them appreciate science even though it wasn’t their major. This pleasure I found in planning and teaching stuck with me as I approached graduation and those dreaded, uncertain “next steps,” so I took a breath, took the leap, and called and made an appointment with a college of education advisor. I was on the road to becoming a teacher!
When my mom found out I decided to become a teacher, she was less than thrilled. She had been a teacher for years and still works in the DOE. As every parent wants for their child, she wanted better for me than what she thought a career in education, especially as a public school teacher, could bring. She was aware of the current situation of teachers, hours of seemingly endless, sometimes thankless work, countless policies to be implemented, not to mention the lower pay, all too common for teachers to endure.
When my mother was in college in the 1970’s, choosing to be an education major was very popular. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1975, “…more than one-fifth (22%) of college students majored in education — a higher share than any other major. By 2015 though, fewer than one in 10 Americans pursuing higher education devoted their studies to education.” Why is that? Probably because of the same reasons my mom didn’t want me to become a teacher. However, college students not majoring in education is only part of the issue.
Despite what my mother said and the statistics, I still wanted to be a teacher and pursue a career in education. I partially wanted to do this because of my mom. I don’t think she realized that every time she talked about work at home, she spoke about it with such passion and conviction in her voice. She always spoke about putting the students first, seeing the big picture, and that the choices she made or the things she asked educators to do was because ultimately the students would benefit. Years of her sharing her education philosophy made me feel like I could make a difference in the lives of young people, just like my mother did.
My mom eventually came around and gave me whatever advice she could to help me. She said that if I could make it past my first five years in the classroom, then I could make it in the profession. As I stated earlier, this school year marks my seventh year of teaching., and I can certainly attest that the first five were the most difficult. When they say that college education classes never truly prepare you for being a teacher, THEY’RE RIGHT! It seemed like everything I learned in my classes went out the window my first day as a teacher. I had to learn new strategies that worked for me in my particular classroom. I found that the best people to acquire strategies from were fellow teachers at my school who were willing to share their tried and true best practices on everything from classroom management to instruction methods.
For the first few years, it was all trial and error. I was not completely sure of myself as a teacher. I was often overwhelmed with the abundance of emails, managing student behavior, giving feedback on all assignments, differentiating lessons for students with accommodations, communicating with parents, creating lessons from scratch, making sure to give multiple formative and summative assessments, being consistent with my classroom procedures, contributing to my grade level team and department, learning the various procedures of my first school as a teacher, preparing for standardized testing without knowing anything about it, all the components of Educator Effectiveness System (EES) — classroom observations, conferences, student learning objectives, data collection. Since all of this was new to me, I often found myself staying late into the night, after everyone else had left, just trying to keep my head above water and finish what I needed to for class the next day. Does any of this sound similar to your first years as a teacher?
Those first few years were the years that I had the most lows. I had classes that would constantly talk over me as I was teaching, parents raising their voices to me asking why I “gave a poor grade” to their child and demanding I change it, administrators asking why our proficiency scores were low on the standardized state science assessment, to name a few. I thought something was wrong with me. I thought I must be in the wrong profession if I was struggling this much. I thought maybe I shouldn’t be a teacher.
According to the Hawaii State Department of Education, “43% of teachers [in Hawaii] have between zero and five years of teaching experience.” Currently, only 57% of teachers in Hawaii have five or more years of teaching experience, which means that the highest teacher turnover is occurring in the early years of a teacher’s career.
According to a report from the Learning Policy Institute, the factor teachers reported as being the most important reason for leaving teaching is dissatisfaction (55%). Major areas of dissatisfaction include dissatisfaction “because of assessments and accountability measures”, “because of not enough support to prepare students for assessments”, “with administration”, and overall dissatisfaction with teaching as a career.
In my first few years, I was definitely dissatisfied as a teacher. But I didn’t leave teaching. What made the difference for me and gave me the motivation to “stick it out” was the support that I received from my mom, the teachers at my school, and my mentor teacher. My mentor teacher, Tammy, met with me multiple times during the month and would often check in with me. During our meetings and calls, besides discussing my teaching practices, classroom management, formative and summative assessments, she would also ask me to reflect on how I felt that day or that week and why. This reflection process helped me to identify that I was struggling because I was spreading myself too thin, saying “yes” to too many things, trying to do too much, and staying too late. Tammy and other teachers at our school helped me to refine my teaching practices to be much more manageable so that I would be able to accomplish everything I needed to without overloading myself.
Now, after having crafted a structure to my classroom that best works for me, it’s not about merely surviving, it’s about thriving and ensuring that my students are thriving as well. It’s about awakening my students curiosity, inspiring them to ask themselves “how can I make a positive impact on the world?” As a new teacher, I thought I was supposed to teach my students everything. Now I know that providing my students opportunities that allow them to explore and make discoveries about the world around them is the best education that I can give them.
What is driving teachers to leave teaching? Dissatisfaction. Yes, low salaries play a role, but I believe that mostly teachers are frustrated with not having a voice in their own profession. We are often told a certain education policy must be implemented, but how often are we consulted or contribute to shaping the policy or how it will be implemented? We are often told standardized assessments are important, but how often are we involved in how they were created? We are often told that teachers are underpaid for the experience and value that we bring to the profession, but when will be be paid our worth? Not having a voice in decisions made at the school, district, state, or even national level, when it comes to all of these issues contribute to teachers feeling dissatisfied in their profession and high teacher turnover.
How can we improve teacher voice and make policy makers and stakeholders in education realize that teachers should have a say in decisions made regarding education, curriculum, standardized assessments, and teacher salary? I believe the only way we can make this happen is sharing our voices collectively. There is power in numbers. We must advocate for ourselves and the teaching profession. We must join forces with other educators to strengthen teaching and learning. We must share our greatest moments so everyone knows why we love teaching. We must reflect upon our lowest moments as teachers so that we can understand what it will take to make a change for the better for future generations of educators. We must share our unique story. Together, we will be heard.
I’d love to hear each of your unique stories and your opinion of what needs to change in the teaching profession to encourage more education majors, increase teacher retention, and decrease teacher turnover. Let’s use the hashtag #OurTeacherVoices to start the conversation and we will be heard.