In the wake of my inaugural blog post last week, I realized in hindsight that I spoke either vaguely or in generalizations on a couple of matters, and I feel sort of compelled to clarify those things.

First of all, I may have – but hope I didn’t – tick off some former colleagues with this nugget about what I was looking for as I got back into teaching: “I … wanted to work with fellow teachers and administrators who worked just as hard as I did and bought into a vision for the school.”  I would hope this goes without saying, but Robinson had, and still has, plenty of teachers who gave a damn and were awesome at what they did.  It occurred to me that I may have painted that faculty with a broad brush, which certainly wasn’t my intent.  I would say that the people I was talking about know who they are, but the sad part is that they probably don’t.

The other point I want to clarify – expound upon, really – is the issue of burnout.  Obviously, teacher retention is becoming a major problem in our public schools, and most people have at least a passing familiarity with the depressing statistics.  A study conducted at the University of Kentucky last year found that the yearly departure rate among educators is around 16%, compared to 11% for other professions.  That wasn’t the most mind-blowing figure, though – the study also mentioned that up to fifty percent of teachers leave the profession within five years of entering it.

Fifty percent?!  At first I couldn’t quite believe that the number is really that high, but then I thought about it.  Here’s a very small, very nonscientific sample for starters: four teachers started at Robinson in 2005-06 that were fresh out of college.  Of those four, one quit after four years to go to law school, another left after five to go to grad school (me), and two are still there.  Fifty percent.  Of the Teaching Fellows I graduated from college with, quite a few have gone on to do other things.  Maybe fifty percent isn’t so outrageous after all.

But these statistics don’t really capture what causes the burnout.  I think that every case of a teacher hitting the wall consists of a combination of common factors that most teachers endure (i.e. overworked, stretched too thin, challenging classes, tons of administrative stuff to do) and situations that are unique to that particular teacher.  My example of the latter started five days before my final year, when my schedule of courses was inexplicably changed to include a block of Civics & Economics, a course I hadn’t taught in four years.  So not only did I have to basically develop a new prep in less than a week, but that class ended up being the most unmotivated, ill-prepared, and misbehaved group I have ever encountered.

There was also the issue of my girlfriend (now-fiancee) living two hours away; as much as I enjoyed announcing our football and basketball games and coaching quiz bowl, I would much rather have spent those countless Friday nights and Saturday afternoons visiting her in Chapel Hill.  Those two factors, combined with the seemingly-endless litany of workshops, paperwork, etc. led to me being a very miserable, bitter person for awhile.  Reading a list of the symptoms of clinical depression became like looking in the mirror; I didn’t seek any professional help, although maybe I should have.

Misty Hathcock, my former Teaching Fellows campus director at UNC Charlotte, asked me and a couple of my former college classmates last year what we wished we’d known going into teaching to make starting out in the profession easier.  Here are a couple of the things we came up with.

1) The paperwork is a huge part of the job.  Obviously, content knowledge and pedagogy should be the lion’s share of any teacher preparation program, but I felt woefully uneducated on what the day-in, day-out nature of the job was.  I’ve told many people that if teaching consisted solely of working with the kids, I never would’ve left.

2) It’s okay to say no.  A lot of administrators prey on younger teachers to advise clubs, coach teams, etc.  It’s sad that a lot of talented young teachers end up overworking themselves because they’re afraid to decline such assignments.  A good administrator will make sure that teachers don’t do so much that their instruction suffers.  I was incredibly relieved when my new principal told me the other night that he didn’t want my “pitch count getting too high” as a result of working with athletics and writing a new curriculum.  He gets it.  A lot of administrators don’t.

3) Don’t reinvent the wheel.  I alluded to this in my last post the other day.  When I started out in teaching I killed myself trying to come up with every activity to teach every part of U.S. History.  It took me too long to figure out that other good U.S. History teachers in my department had kick-ass activities and handouts that they’d let me use.

4) Don’t take too much work home.  I did way too much grading at home when I was at Robinson, which caused work to creep into what should’ve been personal time.  It’s impossible to NEVER take work home with you if you’re a teacher, but minimizing it will increase the amount of time you have to relax and recharge your batteries. (NOTE: this point doesn’t apply to APUSH; if I’d done all my grading for that class at school, I would’ve had to set up a cot in my classroom.)

None of these points are particularly original or groundbreaking, but I wish that teacher education programs and new teachers’ mentors would try to emphasize some of these things.  I can’t help but think that adhering to some of these points more closely may have kept me from taking such a drastic step and becoming part of the fifty percent.