I am a PGCPS middle school teacher. Most of my coworkers have an exit plan. These are the reasons why.
My average class size is 34, but only because I teach in a smaller classroom. I have coworkers with as many as 42 students in a class. When class sizes are that big teachers do not have enough time to give each child the attention they deserve. We do not have enough time to calm the anxious, charm the shy, engage the advanced, and keep up with parent contact logs. We do not have enough space to provide preferential seating to the easily distracted, to separate the bickering, or to allow the fidgety to dance in a corner. We do not have enough co-teachers, para-professionals, or one-to-one aides.
We do not have enough guidance counselors or psychologists to support the students who need it. We do not have enough time to plan engaging lessons that are differentiated to meet the needs of every student, to grade every student’s work thoughtfully, or to give parents the detailed replies they deserve when they have questions or concerns unless we come to work hours before our contract time begins and stay hours after it ends. We don’t have enough support staff to keep student bathrooms clean, shovel snowy sidewalks, or get students through the lunch line in a timely manner. We don’t have enough pencils, enough tissues, or enough paper.
With all the things we don’t have, the majority of good teachers I know do have an exit plan. They are leaving high-poverty schools to teach in affluent neighborhoods where active parents’ groups mean gaps in resources get filled. They are applying to neighboring districts, charter schools, and private schools. Or they are leaving teaching entirely. The more experienced teachers are weighing the cost of retiring before they have a full pension. The newer teachers know how many years of experience the neighboring districts will accept when calculating their salary.
Teachers across the country are walking out to get better conditions for their students: West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina, Los Angeles, Denver, Oakland. Teachers in L.A. went on strike for smaller class sizes, more guidance counselors, and full time nurses and librarians in every school. I hear the same wish list from PGCPS teachers. Some teachers are pinning their hopes on the next round of contract negotiations as the union moves toward Bargaining for the Common Good, but others are simply choosing to exit the system.
These are not the bitter teachers you imagine cursing the day they became teachers as they sneak a smoke by the cafeteria dumpsters. These conversations happen as teachers set out supplies for the day, as they stand in line to make copies, as they share tips on classroom management and grading strategies, as they share the stories of their students who need help that they cannot give because there simply is no time. These are women and men who love their students and work hard at their jobs, but are frustrated because they don’t get the support they need.
Why does teacher turnover matter? A teacher leaving in the middle of the school year can mean a loss of more than a month of instructional days. Long-term subs are often just place-holders, teaching lessons written by already overworked teachers in other classrooms, or assigning workbook pages. When a permanent teacher is found, she has to start with classroom procedures and getting to know students as if it’s September again. Teachers who leave at the end of a school year cause less disruption, but every teacher lost is a loss of experience with the families, the curriculum, and the culture of the school. New teachers are likely to be less experienced. Unless the school has an excellent mentoring program in place, that new teacher probably won’t last long either.
With teachers leaving the profession at the highest rate since it was first recorded in 2001 recruiting any teachers, never mind great teachers, will be increasingly challenging. For the good of our students, Prince George’s County needs to find a way to keep the great teachers we already have.