Teacher Turnover (Or, Knowing When to Leave)

You've probably heard the statistics. 50% of new teachers quit the profession after their first five years. (Not true, according to the US Department of Education. The actual number is a little less than 20%.) And in schools that serve low-income communities, that number becomes even higher. In Washington, DC's poorest public schools, almost two in five teachers choose to leave every year. And the worst schools for teacher turnover? Charter schools. According to the New York State Department of Education, charter schools lose teachers at a much higher rate than their public counterparts -- with some schools bidding farewell to over 50% of their teachers every year. (One Success Academy had over 70% teacher turnover!)

You can find self-reflective essays all over the Internet from teachers who have had enough. Many of them offer a similar narrative: teachers are burned-out from administrative tasks, state-mandated testing, and data-driven instruction. Running your classroom like a corporate enterprise unsurprisingly saps all of the enjoyment out of teaching. (Who would have thought?) I don't have a lot of those problems though. I teach in a supportive school environment where we're given all of the material resources that we need to succeed. We're not burdened with unnecessary paperwork. I'm given the freedom to create my own curriculum based on my individual interests and skills. I'm able to present at conferences and take sabbaticals to travel abroad. Our school's even located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn -- the hipster capital of America. Where else can you pick up a designer fedora, get an 18th century maritime tattoo, AND enjoy cold brew coffee served in a mason jar ALL within a few blocks of your school building?

(I love you, Williamsburg.)

So why would I ever want to leave? For me, there's one simple litmus test. For years, I woke up every morning and, even if I wasn't all that excited about being awake at 5 AM, I never considered calling in sick. I've dragged myself into school in the middle of off-Broadway tech weeks (which, in my opinion, demonstrates much greater commitment than dragging yourself into school during flu season with mucus gushing out of your nostrils like Niagara Falls -- which I have also done). My students needed me to teach them about phallic and yonic symbolism in The Odyssey. About the use of kennings and flyting in Eddic poetry. About gendered violence in the collected works of Lars Van Trier. And I came to school every morning, excited beyond belief to share my esoteric content knowledge with them.

But over the past year, I've started thinking more and more about how I can just "opt-out" instead. There are many reasons why this has happened. I teach 330 students every week and struggle to form meaningful relationships with any of them. My sporadic class schedule doesn't allow us the time or space to create any substantive artistic work together, regardless of how many hours I spend preparing for every lesson. Behavior problems have reached an all-time high, and, even as a skilled veteran teacher, I find myself at a loss in regards to how to get our fifth and sixth graders to walk in straight and silent lines.

For someone whose identity has always been wrapped up in her professional success, this leaves me in a somewhat precarious situation. It's not that I'm struggling to find another teaching job; it's that I'm struggling to determine what the right teaching job would even look like. Regardless of where I end up post-Fulbright, I think that the next six months will be an invaluable opportunity to figure out where I go from here.

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