Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Teacher Burnout

By Tanuja Surpuriya and Mark Jordan

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  You wake up an hour-and-a-half early because you're afraid of being late. The night before, you weren't able to sleep more than two hours at a stretch. Instead of being tired, you're wide awake because you're so nervous. Will the kids like you? Will you make a mistake? Will you know any of the answers?

You put on the outfit you laid out days before, the right combination of clothes that says you're hip, comfortable, but authoritative. A quick bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee later, and you're off, not knowing whether you'll succeed brilliantly or fail miserably.

All of us are familiar with that first-day-of-school anxiety, that unique combination of excitement and fear that comes from entering a whole new world. But in this case it isn't a student who is obsessed with what the kids will think -- it's the teacher.

Every year hundreds of new teachers enter the ranks of the Memphis and Shelby County school systems. All have spent years training for this day. Four years of college followed by at least one semester of student teaching.

But no number of classroom lectures or hours in front of real students at an experienced teacher's side can adequately prepare a teacher for that day when he or she has to stand up in front of a room full of kids and try to help them learn.

"It's like walking a high wire without a net," says one teacher who, after four years in the city-schools system, feels he is just now getting a handle on how to run a class. "They've told you everything they can in college and you've seen good, experienced teachers teach and you've done it yourself, with them watching over your shoulder making sure you don't screw up. But that day when you walk in the classroom and realize you're the only adult and society is looking to you to prepare these kids for life well, it's the scariest feeling in the world, and you're convinced every mistake you make is going to be catastrophic."

BY HIS ACCOUNT, TONY BAER'S FIRST DAY IN front of a classroom was a catastrophe.

"I came to school on the first day, and there was no chalk for the blackboard; you had to go and buy your own," Baer says of his initial day at Sherwood Junior High School. "I didn't have any textbooks for the first two weeks of class. I went out and bought some books with my own money just so the kids would have something to read during the down time."

After those two weeks, Baer transferred to Treadwell Elementary, switching to third grade, an age group on which he felt he could have a more meaningful impact. But even there Baer felt frustrated with the conditions under which he was being asked to teach.

"I was in a classroom with 36 kids; it was the smallest class in the school," Baer says. "They kept promising all year that they would give us one of those outdoor classrooms, and it never came."

Baer is the kind of person you would think any school system would love to have teaching for them -- young, bright, full of ideals and passion.

"Pretty much, I just wanted to help the disadvantaged," he says. "That's pretty much the only reason I went to teacher's college."

In 1995, after receiving his teaching degree from the University of Windsor just outside of Detroit, Baer moved here and obtained a teaching position with the Memphis City Schools. Less than a year later, he quit, worn down, he says, by a system of politicians, school administrators, and even parents who undermined his best efforts to teach.

"As a teacher, you're essentially powerless before the school system," Baer says. "I've heard a lot of the inner-city schools are workable, but the problem is the administration and whether or not they'll support you."

Mitchel Gertner agrees.

"The bureaucracy of education is terrible," says Gertner. "A teacher's opinion is not valued by anyone -- administration or parents. The administration is overly accommodating to parents."

A 28-year-old from New Jersey, Gertner discovered teaching during registration at Temple University. He was in line to register for classes in sports medicine when he started playing with a little girl waiting with her mother ("Can we keep him?" the girl asked when they had to leave.). Someone told Gertner he would make a good teacher. When it came time for graduate school at the University of Memphis, he switched his field to education.

Gertner now teaches eighth-grade American history at Southwind Middle School. After four years on the job, he too feels exasperated with the system.

"I went into [teaching] headstrong, like I could change the world," he says. "If I can change one person, they can change another person I was gung-ho."

And while Gertner plans to continue teaching, today he feels somewhat dispirited by student and parent apathy on one side and administrative meddling on the other. "[Teachers] are like the frontline, grunt soldiers," he says. "We're getting it from both ends."

Houston High art teacher and U of M graduate student Louis Varnell, 28, understands the military analogy all too well. He has worked with juvenile delinquents and abused children at a private school in Chattanooga and is an avid Civil War buff, but says even hundreds of mock military drills didn't prepared him for the confrontations he has encountered with students in his classes.

"I was totally shocked at the lack of respect they [students] had for teachers," Varnell says of his first reaction to the teaching profession two years ago. "Students cuss at you and challenge your authority. When I was growing up you just naturally had respect for your teachers. You just didn't talk back or show them you were better than them or even equal to them."

Varnell says he could have burnt out after his first year because he had no control over his students.

"I took everything personally," he says. "I spent a lot of time yelling or writing people up. But this year, I reevaluated my approach."

While Varnell says he is less frustrated than last year, the kids are bringing more emotional baggage with them to the classroom.

They come from homes where the parents do not pay attention to grades or behavior, where parents are using drugs or alcohol. They bring the problems of their neighborhoods into the school building. While school used to be a sanctuary from bullies and scores were settled outdoors after class, the school is now center stage for fistfights and gunshots.

Programs that are in place to help both teachers and students aren't proving effective -- they may even undermine a teacher's authority. The state's Zero Tolerance Policy on violence was understood to be a foolproof method of ridding the classroom of serious offenders. But with no standard punishment in place, the punishments run the gamut from suspensions to a slap on the hand.

Besides, teachers say suspensions are rarely effective, with most kids seeing them as a holiday from school.

And alternative sites, schools set up for problem children to attend temporarily, are effective but are not available for students in kindergarten through sixth grade.

All this doesn't make a teacher's job any easier. Instead, teachers are taking on the roles of counselor, mother, father, friend, secretary, doctor, preacher, and police officer. Some actually find time to teach math and science and English on the side. Others simply say, "Forget it."

AMERICA'S TEACHERS TODAY ARE OLDER, better educated, and have more experience than ever before, according to a study released this summer by the National Education Association. The study, based on information provided by a sample of the nation's 2.5 million schoolteachers, says that almost 67 percent of the country's public schoolteachers are over the age of 40, 54 percent have their master's degree or at least six years of college, and 38 percent have been teaching more than 20 years, with the mean a hefty 16 years.

The spin that the teachers unions like to put on this trend toward older teachers is that it means that today's students enjoy the most experienced and trained teaching force ever. But while that may bode well for today's students, it could spell disaster for the Class of 2000 and beyond.

As with Medicare and Social Security, authorities are predicting a crisis in the public school system as we head into the next millennium. In 2010 the oldest of the baby boomers will reach retirement age. And as the biggest generation in the nation's history begins to transfer out of the workforce, they'll leave a void that will have to be filled by a generation -- the so-called baby busters -- that is a full 11 percent smaller than the preceding one. Making the labor shortage more pronounced is the fact that the generation following the baby busters promises to be even bigger than the baby boomers of 47 years ago.

These trends seem to point to a potentially devastating teacher shortage in the near future. In fact, according to a report issued last year by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, a nonpartisan group of educators, governors, and business leaders, the U.S. will need to recruit 2 million teachers over the next 10 years to fill the void.

But the current system of recruiting, training, and placing teachers may not be sufficient to reach that goal. It's estimated that nationwide as many of 50 percent of all new teachers leave the profession within five years. While there are no local figures available, Memphis school authorities insist their rates are lower. Some teachers who leave the profession early in their careers never intended to stay long in the first place; they shared a common attitude that teaching is just a career pit stop, someplace to spend a few years until they figured out what they really wanted to do or until something better came along.

Like Tony Baer, though, just as many teachers leave because -- either due to unreal expectations or harsh working conditions -- the system wore them down. The long hours, the low pay, the unruly students, and the ineffectual administration all combined to make them reevaluate why they went into teaching in the first place. And for many, the result of that evaluation is "not for this."

This, then, is the question: Can teacher educators and school systems, across the country and here in Memphis, change the way they work and make teaching more attractive to enough people to fill the impending teacher gap? Can they attract new teachers who will enter the field of education, not for money or job security, but because they genuinely want to make a difference?

"I'M SEEING A HIGHER QUALITY of student now," says the University of Memphis' Dr. Cindi Chance. "I'm seeing people who want to be teachers as opposed to those who settle on teaching because they can't do anything else."

As the assistant dean of teacher education for the university's College of Education, Chance helps head up an institution that, along with Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, turns out more teachers in Tennessee than any other institution in the state.

Despite a wide-ranging curriculum and a course of study that requires at least one semester of student teaching before graduation, Chance admits that no amount of class work can adequately prepare a first-time teacher for the realities of the job.

"It's difficult if not impossible to teach the breadth of what [new teachers] are getting into," says Chance. "Even with student teaching, it's difficult to see the magnitude. Every school has its own culture the way things are done is different from school to school."

Chance says that research shows it is an inability to understand the school culture, an inability to access the bureaucracy of the system, that most frustrates new teachers and drives them out of the profession.

"It's not knowing where to go with problems, how to get textbooks and supplies, how to cope with a problem child, that upsets them," Chance says. "If they would just go to their more experienced peers, they could probably find a lot of sympathy and help."

Tom Marchand, president of Memphis Education Association, the labor group for area teachers, says that while he hasn't noticed many teachers leaving the system, he does feel they are "at the end of their rope. They are frustrated because of a lack of support from parents and administrators."

One way in which the U of M tries to help ease those frustrations and make the transition to the classroom smoother is through a hotline which dispatches a College of Education employee to provide on-site help to beleaguered teachers.

The college also runs a special First Year Teacher Program, a monthly Saturday session where all first-year teachers, regardless of what system they work in or whether they attended the U of M or not, can come and ask questions of veteran educators.

"The people who lead these sessions are not university people," says Chance. "They're successful teachers who teach in the public school systems. And they are there to tell the new teachers that what they are going through is very natural, and it will pass."

The U of M program seems like a more effective form of the required mentoring program, which teams new teachers with veterans who are supposed to help them get a handle on their job. The problem is that, unlike states like California and Georgia which pay teachers extra for working with their younger colleagues, Tennessee's mentoring program isn't funded.

"That means that they have to mentor in addition to their regular duties -- teaching classes, grading papers, making lesson plans, not to mention the mountains of paperwork they have to do," Chance says.

It is her fervent hope that all the problems beginning teachers face can be overcome, because at stake is what may be the most gifted generation of teachers she has ever seen.

"It has become fashionable to work in service roles again," says Chance, referring to the baby busters' well-documented attraction to jobs that emphasize community service over financial gain. "When I hear young people talk, it's not about achieving material things like BMWs. It's about saving the world and trying to make a difference."

That's why, Chance says, it's so important to make sure these teachers, who seem to want to make a genuine difference in young people's lives, don't get driven away by the hardships of the system.

In this case, it is certainly better to fade away than to burn out.

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