Why Are You Leaving Me?

– by Jack M. Jose

This week I was preparing a post about difficult conversations. I was reviewing some of the articles and books I have read about challenging conversations, and thinking back on the many times I have had to deliver hard news to a student’s family, or to a friend or an employee, or someone who is both. The topics at Angels and Superheroes are charted out weeks in advance. Our spreadsheet includes some ideas of what should be covered in the post. I had some ideas about what I wanted to say regarding the difficult conversations I often have to schedule and implement.

And then, serendipitously, someone who is both an employee and a friend came to me to have a difficult conversation. Or, more accurately, to deliver some hard news. Sometimes the situation comes to you.

He is a talented and bright young teacher. I interviewed him for the district several years ago, and walked away impressed, wishing I had a spot for him on my roster. I was devastated when, just a couple short weeks later, a spot opened up and I called human resources only to learn that he had been placed at another school. I kept in touch, and ran into him at social justice events, becoming more convinced over time that he would be an asset to the school. I periodically brought him up in conversations as “the one who got away.” Last spring, when we again had an opening, he transferred to our school. He turned out to be everything that I hoped he would be, and in some ways more.

In just his first year in the building he has taken on some leadership roles, and built a strong rapport with students and staff. Behind the scenes he operates with integrity, including helping facilitate difficult “elephant in the room” discussions, and brings insight to math and science instruction in the school. As for our Montessori approach, he just understands it. In the second semester when I stopped in to observe his classroom one day, he asked the class, “Who is our ambassador today?” When it was determined the designated student was absent, another student quickly volunteered and came over to me as he continued his lesson. She quietly welcomed me to the class, gave me a copy of a handout they were working on, told me the main point of the day’s lesson, and suggested places I could sit. She checked on me at each transition. This teacher had built leadership and community into his classroom process.

I identified very closely with him, perhaps because I saw an approach similar to mine. He was open to feedback, and eager to learn. I walked out of observations and discussions with him wondering what I could give to him to help him progress, wondering if perhaps I had anything to offer. Of course principals do not have favorite teachers, just as teachers do not have favorite students. But we know that in each group there are a few who make the day flow more smoothly, and who operate independently. They seem to put more in than they need out of the system.

Then he scheduled this meeting with me.

I was not worried about it at all. We had consulted closely on his intersession planning for several weeks, going back and forth with the CPS legal team and facilities department to ultimately decide that it would be unwise to build a climbing wall outdoors on school property. More recently we had spoken to back off of an outdoor climbing plan, and as he requested to add a second Gamble Moment to our annual Gamble Moments book.

In my office last week, the look on his face was grave. “Mr. Jose, this is not an easy thing to say.”

I knew it right then. He was leaving. My heart sank. I know my feelings escaped onto my face because he reacted. I’m not certain, but as I remember it, the next words out of his mouth were, “I’m sorry.” That was my confirmation of why he needed to talk.

He was leaving me.

Sure, I know, he was leaving the school, he was leaving the students, he was leaving all of us, but I became intensely aware that I was taking the news very personally.  The rest of the conversation was important, perhaps crucial, but the news was all delivered in the set-up, the look on his face, and his apology.

He was leaving me.

Scary place, the future.

Teachers leave buildings all the time. Teachers leave teaching too. In a recent NPR article, Linda Hammond, the President and CEO of the nonprofit Learning Policy Institute, cited the national attrition rate – out of teaching – as 8%. The Shanker Institute, a nonprofit educational research group, asserted in this 2015 article that the “mover” and “leaver” rates were about 8% each, nationally, resulting in a combined typical rate of 16% attrition. Krista talks more powerfully about teacher burnout here.

Gamble Montessori had a bad year. As of the publication of this post, seven teachers are leaving the school, which is 18% of our 39 full-time teachers. Last year that number was better – we had five teachers leave, or 12%. (I want to rationalize even further: We have three itinerant academic teachers and an itinerant band director, if calculated in, this would push our rate this year to 16%. However, this is merely rationalization.) Two other teachers met with me during the year to discuss leaving; other possibilities they were pursuing in their personal lives could potentially pull them away. One went so far as to fill out a resignation paper from the district. However, both saw those prospects dim and are currently scheduled to return next year.

But why do teachers leave? Hammond provided two reasons. “[T]he first reason is lack of administrative support. The second one is concerns about the way accountability pressures in the No Child Left Behind era created pressure to teach to the test, burdensome sanctions and the loss of autonomy in the classroom.” Okay, I can deal with that. One of those reasons is in my control.

Jennifer Duffield, co-founder of Dancing Moose Montessori School in West Valley City, UT was pretty direct in her recent talk at the American Montessori Society (AMS) National Conference. In her words to administrators she said, simply, “The bad news is, we’re the problem. The good news is, we can also be the solution.” She stated that 63% of teachers who had negative feedback about administrators left, and 93% with positive feedback stayed.

Her data, like Hammond’s, points to a persistent 7% who leave despite positive feelings about administration.

It doesn’t take data, or an AMS presentation, for me to blame myself when a teacher leaves. Sometimes the reason presented is wholly unrelated to me, such as moving out of town following a marriage, or a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to follow a dream job. And to be certain, some of those who move on do so as a mutual parting of ways, perhaps after losing their zest for teaching, or exhibiting the same struggles with relationships or deadlines year after year. Nonetheless, I take each resignation or move personally.

As the leader of the school, I identify personally with each win or loss. This can be literal, like our first ever win with each of our athletics teams, or figurative, like the arrival and departure of staff. Our academic scores flood me with a range of emotions, despite my disparagement of using those scores to evaluate me, the school, the teachers, and our students. Each departure – or even rumor of a possible departure – sets off inside of me a volley of soul-searching and self-questioning. “What did I do wrong? How could I have better supported him/her? Was it something I said or did? Something I did NOT say or do?” And the list of reasons never seems to involve me. It is either a wedding, moving to be nearer to family, retirement, a dream job opportunity or similar reasons. However, I am certain that this is just people being polite to me. I queried him the same way I asked others: is there something I could have done better?

So what can be done about it? Duffield’s approach was straightforward: buy them coffee. Well, it was more complicated than that. She provided a host of solutions for the principal:

  • Focus on teacher growth and well being
  • Take more of the blame, and less of the credit
  • Protect them from district initiatives and unimportant tasks
  • Create an interdependent community where they have the resources to share problem-solving responsibilities
  • Listen to them, and give them what they need (which is, sometimes, coffee)
  • Have hard conversations, where you are nice, but tough [she used the word “nice,” but other authors and presenters, including Krista, and Patricia Jennings, would improve this suggestion by saying we should be “kind” but tough]

These rules describe the support that teachers need from their principals, and are not just rules for conversations. They seem to lay the groundwork for only the positive, growth-focused conversations, or for moments of praise and co-working to solve problems. Yet, because they help set the basis for building community, they actually help with all conversations. This includes hard conversations, like corrective feedback on observations, and addressing when someone falls short of our expectations. These can be uncomfortable. I used to flee from these conversations. Now sometimes I not only don’t avoid them, but I sort of relish them. I see each as a challenge and evidence of my growth, and a chance to use what I learned in reading Conversational Capacity. If I get a report that an adult in the school has spoken inappropriately to a student, or questioned another adult’s decision openly in front of others, I get the familiar rush of blood to my head. It would be easy to nod and promptly forget the report. Instead, now, I still give the nod, and a non-committal sound, then I seek the best way to address the issue directly. Sometimes the right answer is to say to the teacher in front of me, who has just complained about a colleague, “And what did they say when you addressed this with them?” If they did not have the conversation, which is often the case, I offer to help them structure the conversation, and offer my assistance for feedback if the meeting does not go as planned. Or if they have tried conversation and it did not work, instead of avoidance, I stride intentionally into the conversation. It is this recent practice that helped me be ready when my teacher sat down in my office and said, “This is hard.”

So I listened. He explained about a once-in-a-lifetime chance to work with friends on a way to help impoverished students. It had been a dream of theirs, but a grant meant that his friends could afford to pay him, at least for a year. This was his passion, and he could be paid to follow it.

In response, I told him, honestly, how sad I was to hear this. I explained his value to me personally, and to the team, and how I had figured him into plans moving forward at the school. I stated – bluntly, I thought – that while I would be happy to hear if he changed his mind, I was not trying to change his mind.  I was simply expressing the facts. I reassured him that he was doing the right thing by pursuing his dream and that if he chose to return, I would endeavor to find a place for him at our school, because it was better with him here. No one should ever be given any message different than that.

Personally, I felt like I had been kicked in the gut. I didn’t see it coming. And I told him so. I just named the feeling. But in expressing that to him, and remaining focused on what he needed – support, reassurance, and the confidence that he could have a place to return if his dream could not be realized – I had the difficult conversation the right way. Most importantly, I did not waiver from my philosophy of supporting the person in front of me. The school is important, but not more important than any of the people in it.

At Gamble, we take time in our staff meetings for acknowledgements. This is the time we structure to build community by thanking others or pointing out good work they have done to help us individually or as a school. At Monday’s staff meeting, when it was time for acknowledgements, my teacher who was leaving spoke up. “I’d like to acknowledge Jack. We had a hard conversation last week, and he was extremely understanding and supportive. I really appreciate that.” This weekend, as I sought his permission to use the story for this blog, he added, “Still feeling that way too. Appreciate your grace.”

There was a time when this was not the conversation I would have. One year, my second as principal, a promising young teacher approached me and asked permission to leave. She had a chance to move to our sister school, where she indicated she had dreamed of teaching. The timing was very late, and she had to ask me because the internal transfer rounds were over, and a transfer would require permission from both principals. I considered the calendar, and the difficulty involved in getting a teacher into the vacancy in time for opening day, let alone one as promising as her. I prevented her move. I held my ground even after Krista came to me and strongly advocated for supporting the individual over the institution. I was doing what was best for the school, I felt, and certainly what was best for me.

I have come to believe that I was wrong.

This decision was, I believe, subconsciously held against me by the teacher for the rest of her tenure at our school. She once even said as much as we were discussing a different issue. I had broken the relationship in order to do what I believed was best for the school, and I had ultimately benefitted nothing. She stayed a few more years, and proved that my belief in her promise was well-placed. She developed a strong teaching presence and structured a highly functional classroom, working closely with other adults to meet the needs of students. When another opportunity came to leave, however, she took it. But really, she had left years before, and I wonder if perhaps she could have been a better teacher somewhere else, or perhaps she would have seen the grass was not greener and returned. Neither of us will ever know. I am certain that she is gone from our school forever.

Maybe this other young teacher, the one I supported instead of blocking, will come back. There is precedent for that at our school. Maybe he won’t. Ultimately, I am proud that I supported him in the ways I could.

I can’t fully change the fact that I feel like he, and the others, are leaving me. ME, personally. I can, however, take steps to help all of my teachers feel more supported, and to take the action I can to support them in their roles and in their careers, even if that means letting them go.

The Systemic Problem of Teacher Burnout

Last week, my students and I were out of the building on a field experience. As our speaker wrapped up, he called on one final student who had his hand-raised. The student said, “I’d like to acknowledge you for taking the time to talk to us today and for answering all our questions.”

Acknowledgments are a regular practice at Gamble, and I typically ask students to provide acknowledgments for our hosts at the conclusion of our field experiences.  This time, I had forgotten.  But Peter had not.

When Carissa, who was sitting next to me, heard Peter’s unprompted acknowledgment, she turned to me, smiling, and whispered, “That means you’re doing your job right, you know.”

She didn’t know it, but her statement was akin to throwing me a lifeline. You see, it was just two days before spring break, and I was running from the specter of teacher burnout and losing ground fast. It was a race to the finish to see which would break first – the school year, or me.

Burnout is defined as “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.” (Mirriam-Webster)

Teacher burnout is described in many ways, but I found this list of warning signs to be particularly helpful.[1]

  • Exhaustion – a fatigue so deep that there’s no way to “turn it off”
  • Extreme graveness –Realizing you go hours without smiling or laughing
  • Anxiety – The constant, nagging feeling that you can and should do more
  • Being overwhelmed – Questioning how you can possibly add one more task, expectation, or mandate to your plate
  • Seeking —Losing your creativity, imagination, patience, and enthusiasm
  • Isolation –Wanting to head for the deepest, darkest cave where no one will see your vulnerability

The stress and exhaustion of teaching is well documented. A recent Gallup poll indicates that 46% of teachers experience high levels of daily stress. This is on par with nurses, and tops the list of surveyed occupations.[2]

Another indicator of stress and exhaustion is the statistic that 43% of teachers sleep an average of six or fewer hours a night.[3] It’s little wonder then that “sleep” was the number one response my colleagues provided in answer to the question, “What are you most looking forward to about spring break?”

This continual stress and exhaustion leads to burnout, but teacher burnout is more than just a problem for individual teachers and schools. It is so pervasive that it has profound impacts on the profession as a whole.

NPR cites the following concerning statistics: [4]

  • 8% of teachers leave the field each year; only one-third of this attrition is due to retirement
  • 50% of the teaching profession turns over every 7 years
  • 40-50% of teachers leave the profession within the first five years.
  • Enrollment in teacher-training programs has fallen 35% in the past five years; a loss of 240,000 teachers

What exactly is it that causes such high levels of stress in teaching? Those who are not in the field of education are often stymied by this. “Seven hour school days and all major holidays and summers off,” they reason. “What’s so stressful about that?”

However, the difference between the working hours obligated by the contract (as described above) and the fulfillment of the contractual requirements of the job (as described below) is profound. I used to count my work hours each week, but after spending a year consistently tallying 65-70 hour weeks, I stopped counting. It was too overwhelming. And I’m not different from any of my colleagues. All of us work a tremendous number of hours beyond our contractual obligation. Some of this is expected. No one goes into teaching actually believing that the work will be contained within school hours, but how does a contracted thirty-five hour week balloon into seventy hours of work?

Let’s begin with the school day. For me, five of the seven hours each day are spent actively teaching. I am fortunate to have two “planning bells” each day; however one of these is used every day for different variations of team meetings, and the other one is almost always consumed by parent conferences or other meetings. On average, I have one bell (50 minutes) a week that I can actually use to plan.

During my half hour lunch, I open my classroom to students who need help with their work, or who are just seeking a calmer and quieter option than the cafeteria. I eat and work. Sometimes I forget to eat.

I have meetings after school every day with the exception of Fridays, and the third Thursday of the month. These meetings run for 60-90 minutes. Sometimes I have back-to-back after-school meetings.

All of the remaining requirements of teaching must occur outside of the time already listed above. These requirements include:

  • Designing curriculum
  • Writing lesson plans
  • Creating materials
  • Preparing the classroom
  • Grading student work
  • Entering grades
  • Discipline logging
  • Making parent phone calls
  • Completing paperwork (SLOs, IEPs, ETRs, 504s, WEPs, 90 Day Plans, … )
  • Copying
  • Stapling
  • Hole punching …

My friends in business can’t understand. They ask me why I don’t just delegate some of this work. “Delegate?!” I laugh. “To whom??” Teachers are at the bottom of food chain; most of us have no one to whom to delegate. (I am fortunate to have a paraprofessional on my team; however she is shared by seven teachers, so her time is spread very thin.)

There are additional stressors beyond those of limited time as well. Some commonly cited external factors are:[5]

  • Lack of resources
  • Low pay
  • Test score pressure
  • Changing assessments and expectations
  • Lack of parental involvement
  • Ever-increasing paperwork requirements

It’s not a mystery why fewer and fewer college graduates are choosing to become teachers. Those who do choose to enter the field of education join dedicated veteran teachers in seeing teaching as more than just a job. For most, teaching is a calling or a purpose.

Anything that is seen not just as a profession, but as a vocation, a mission, a passion, and a purpose requires an internal fire to fuel it. And all fires run the risk of being extinguished.

There is precious little fire-feeding oxygen left in American education, and this is showing up in extraordinarily high rates of burnout and teacher turnover.

So what can we do about it?

When I turned to the internet for answers, I was startled by what I found. There was certainly no dearth of advice, but all of it placed the responsibility for solving burnout on the struggling teacher herself, – “Teacher, heal thyself!”

“5 Ways to Prevent Teacher Burnout”

“6 Signs of, and Solutions for, Teacher Burnout”

“7 Self-Care Strategies”

“10 Steps to Avoiding Teacher Burnout”

And my personal favorite …

25 Tips to Reduce Teacher Burnout”

Because that’s just what a stressed-out and overwhelmed teacher needs – 25 more things to add to her to-do list. Number 2 on that list, by the way, is “Smile.”

The message that these types of articles are sending is that burnout is a failure of the teacher to properly take care of herself.

I would be remiss if I failed to note that each of the suggestions on all of those lists are good ways to encourage people to take care of themselves, and they place the locus of control with the teacher, which is empowering. My issue, however, is two-fold: these articles attempt to treat the symptoms and not the problem, and they ask the teacher whose internal fire is dying to re-kindle her own flame, when she is likely the person least able to do this.

Let’s start with the problem. I am often told that I “shouldn’t work so hard.” That’s a nice platitude, but I find it profoundly frustrating because when I ask which part of my job requirements I should fail to complete, or complete with marginal quality, in order to save myself some time, I never get an answer.

I often say that the greatest challenge of teaching should be educating the students in our classrooms. That’s a hard job all by itself for a wide-variety of reasons. When it is made harder by policies, inefficiencies, and bureaucracy, we have done everyone involved a grave disservice. I have previously written about the seemingly insurmountable challenges placed on teachers by educational legislation here and here.

A friend of mine who has studied organizational management had this to say regarding teacher burnout, “I think with what we are asking of teachers the question is, ‘How could teachers not be burned out, and how can all of us (administrators, community members, school boards) help to combat this?’”

And that’s just it. If education is important to our society, then teachers must be deemed important as well, and all of us must help to solve the societal problem of teacher burnout. Our children need good teachers, and good teachers work very hard. Keeping them in the profession is a shared responsibility.

Some action steps:

  • Vote for school levies, even if you don’t have a child in school – resources, especially as related to staffing (the greatest single expense), are key.
  • Speak out against the school reform madness – especially if you are a parent in an affluent school district.
  • Don’t participate in teacher or school bashing, or allow others to do the same – the vast majority of parents are happy with their child’s teacher and school. The narrative that America has a preponderance of bad teachers and bad schools is simply not upheld by data.
  • Demand that your local school board set decent wages for teachers, and that they provide appropriate cost of living increases.
  • Support your child’s teacher – give the benefit of the doubt, encourage your child to develop independence, and nurture his or her self-advocacy skills before getting involved in potential school conflicts (see The Gift of Failure)
  • Acknowledge teachers for the positive work that they do – better yet share these acknowledgments with administrators. Parents with complaints readily share their concerns with administration; positive comments should be shared as well.
  • Don’t tell a teacher to “take time for herself – sleep, exercise, meditate, invite a friend for lunch, smile” unless you’re willing to help take something off her plate that allows her to do that.
  • If you know a teacher, ask how you can help – anyone can cut, collate, staple, hole punch.
  • Say thank you – again and again and again. This is why we do what we do.

I remain hopeful that those things can make a difference, but I don’t have much faith that the epidemic of teacher burnout will change soon. The anti-education “school reform” movement is powerful. It will take time to weaken its death grip on the throat of public schools.

But in the interim, all is not lost. Who better to support burning out teachers than those who know the industry the best – teachers. We are all on fire, but we burn with different levels of brightness at different times. We can each use our spark to help kindle the dwindling embers of another’s fire. A wise teacher I know said, “When we become a true community of educators in our building and in larger society, I find that I am not the island.”

Catherine McTamaney writes about this same thing in her book, A Delicate Task. “Teaching is hard. [We] are asked to give up so much of ourselves, to make ourselves humble and lowly before the child, to be servants, to be scientists, to be saints … but there are others on the path with us. We can lean on each other. We can walk in each other’s footsteps. Sometimes we’re at the front of the path. Sometimes we’re following another traveler. Sometimes we’re resting … Sometimes we’re so far ahead or behind that we can’t even see each other anymore. But we’re not alone. We are each other’s navigational stars.”[6]

To be “each other’s navigational stars,” we have to be connected to one another, and we have to pay attention to one another. While I believe that all teachers can help each other to combat burnout, my interpretation is that this work should fall most heavily on veteran teachers, mentor teachers, building leadership, and administration.

In supporting each other, we must not simply be content to provide inspiration. We must work to create environments that make teaching easier without sacrificing the best interests of our students. Here are some of the in-building supports that teachers say help them to be more resilient.

  • Leadership that is supportive and non-punitive
  • Having someone willing to slow down and listen when they have a concern
  • The provision of more time to allow for planning and collaboration
  • Work that is equitably shared by everyone
  • Meeting time spent to facilitate efficiency and effectiveness in the classroom, not to create additional work
  • Good communication
  • Consistent expectations
  • Follow-through: being able to trust that what was agreed upon will occur
  • Celebration of successes
  • Acknowledgment of good work

In my role as team leader, I’ve recently initiated a process to try and help with some of this. For each of the last two quarters, I’ve met one-on-one with every member of my team. To prepare for our meetings I’ve asked them to consider their responses to four questions.

  • What are three things you want to brag about from this quarter?
  • What is your current burning issue?
  • How can I help?
  • What I can do to be more effective in my role as team leader?

We’ve had some rich conversations, and I’ve gotten to know each of them better, but my great hope is that I’ve helped them to see the value in what they do, and to examine how they can keep improving.

The hardest question is always “What are three things you want to brag about?” At just about every conference, I hear, “I can’t think of three.” My response? “Yes, you can. Think harder.” And they do.

Asking them to identify a burning issue is the same thing as saying, “What do you most want to improve?” – except somehow it feels more approachable.

How can I help?”  is my favorite of the four questions. I’ve learned that it is much more powerful than its more common counterpart, “Let me know if I can help.” The latter provides an option to decline by omission; the former does not. If I ask about a burning issue and then don’t seek ways to help, I am essentially saying, “I see you struggling. Best of luck to you!”

The final question is purely selfish. I simply want to know how to get better at what I do.

I have only just begun this process, so I cannot say how effective it will prove to be in the long run, but I’ve gotten short-term positive feedback. Recently, I offered the opportunity to correspond via email if scheduling meetings took too much precious time. In response to this, one of my colleagues said, “Oh no. I wouldn’t want to give up the deliciousness of that meeting with you.” While I can’t say whether or not our meeting was “delicious,” we did have a powerful dialogue.

No single strategy will suffice to fix the great challenges and stressors in education. Teachers must remember, sometimes through the fog and the haze of exhaustion, that it’s really all about the students. The students are the most powerful motivators and sustainers of all. I, like many teachers, keep a file full of notes like this one.

We must remind ourselves, and each other, every day if necessary, that the work we do matters.

As Carissa said, “That means you’re doing your job right, you know.”

Hold on to those lifelines. Write them down. Remember them, and help each other to see them.  Keep those fires burning.

 

 

[1] Pillars, Wendi. “Six Signs Of—and Solutions For—Teacher Burnout.” Education Week Teacher. N.p., 29 Apr. 2016. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.

[2] Turner, Cory. “Teachers Are Stressed, And That Should Stress Us All.” NPR. NPR, 30 Dec. 2016. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.

[3] Stuart, Dave, Jr. “Not Getting Enough Sleep? Tired Teachers Aren’t Usually the Best Teachers.” NEA Today. National Education Association, 21 Feb. 2017. Web. 28 Mar. 2017.

[4] Westervelt, Eric. “Frustration. Burnout. Attrition. It’s Time To Address The National Teacher Shortage.” NPR. NPR, 15 Sept. 2016. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.

[5] “Surviving Teacher Burnout.” NEA Today. N.p., 01 Feb. 2015. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.

[6] Edd, Catherine Mctamaney. Delicate Task: Teaching and Learning on a Montessori Path. Place of Publication Not Identified: IUniverse Com, 2012. Print. p.xv.