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Novice, Veteran Teachers Share Job Frustration

May 12, 1999|CHRISTINE BARON | Christine Baron is a high school English teacher in Orange County

As if I weren't already saddened by how few of my students are choosing education as a career, the barrage of mail I received was even more depressing.

The responses to my most recent column tended to come primarily from two groups:

* Young teachers who had just started their careers and were already considering getting out.

* Older or retired teachers who felt they would not make the same choice again if they had it to do over.

Despite the differences in age and stage, the two groups displayed an amazing consensus as to how and why they had arrived at this point. It is worth sharing their experiences because they can give us some insight about what is wrong and perhaps what we might do to turn this situation around.

The new teachers felt overwhelmed by the demands of the job. There really is no easing into teaching. Once a semester of actual practice is completed (and there isn't even that much in some districts with severe shortages), the new teacher is expected to do the same job as the 20-year veteran. It would not be unusual for a beginning high school teacher to be assigned several courses to teach (maybe even in two departments), at a couple of grade levels, with 35 to 40 students in each class.

On top of that, the new employee might be expected to advise the cheerleading squad or direct the fall play.

Many of these same young teachers feel that the education courses they took in college did not begin to prepare them for the reality of public schools. Although there are excellent programs out there and fine instructors, there is also a lot of irrelevance and busywork that has little to do with becoming an effective teacher.

Once on the job, the new teacher often finds little assistance, support or mentoring. Some neophyte teachers felt as if they were dropped into the deep end of the pool and left there to sink or swim. The only contact they had with administrators was when they did something wrong.

Older teachers who wrote did not feel much better about their work. The No. 1 complaint was not being treated as a professional, despite a good deal of training and years on the job.

Educators with 25 years' experience, a master's degree and a good reputation have reported being yelled at by administrators, challenged by parents and insulted by students.

Experienced and new teachers described frequent feelings of isolation. They are stuck in a classroom without contact with colleagues, recognition or any process to gauge how they are doing. Granted, they frequently get feedback from their students, but that's not the same as from one's peers and administrators. Along with no praise for a job well done, they see no consequences for those who do an inept job, a situation that is also demoralizing.

Several instructors felt that teaching is one of the few professions that seems to get harder with each passing year, not easier.

There are no "perks" as the years roll by, but rather larger classes (up to 40 now in many districts), added responsibilities (some districts now encourage teachers to come in on the weekends to clean up the campus) and an increasingly depressing work environment (aging schools that are leaking, peeling and otherwise deteriorating).

Salary is an issue as well. In California, it takes a four-year university degree and a year of graduate school to become a teacher, which translates into five years of tuition and, most likely, education loans. With that much additional schooling after high school, it is reasonable to expect comparable salaries with other jobs that require the same amount of or even less training.

We cannot ignore these voices. The people who wrote these long, often impassioned letters are not sitting in some office or ivory tower. They are in the trenches of education. They see our children every day, and they know what they are talking about. There are bright, motivated people out there who want to teach and are good at it.

Their decision to steer away from teaching is a sad statement. We need these people; we cannot afford to lose them.

Even if we do not have children or any intention of ever becoming a teacher, we are still affected by what happens to our public school system. The products of our schools will enforce our laws, build our houses, sell us our insurance and fix our cars.

Most important, they will live in our towns, walk our streets and be our neighbors. How we prepare the next generation, and who does it, concerns us all. It defines us as a nation, perhaps as much as anything can, in terms of who we are and what we value.


Christine Baron is a high school English teacher in Orange County. You can reach her at or (714) 966-4550.

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