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THOMPSON: I'm Returning to My Classroom and Sara Fine Isn't. Na. Na. Ne. Na. Na.

Burnout3 Seriously, Sara Fine sounds like a great teacher, and she explains her exit from the classroom after four years.

"When people ask, I tend to cite the usual suspect -- 'burnout,' Fine explains,"... I describe what it was like to teach students such as Shawna, a 10th-grader who could barely read and had resolved that the best way to deal with me was to curse me out under her breath. I describe spending weeks revising a curriculum proposal with my fellow teachers, only to find out that the administration had made a unilateral decision without looking at it. I describe how it became impossible to imagine keeping it up and still having energy for, say, a family."

Moreover, "more and more major decisions were made behind closed doors, and more and more teachers felt micromanaged rather than supported." This at a D.C. charter school where only 71% of students are economically disadvantaged, but only 50 of its 2005 freshmen class of 130 graduated on time.

Fine writes "Nationally, half of all new teachers leave the profession within five years, and in urban schools, especially the much-lauded "no excuses" charter schools, turnover is often much higher.  But there is more to those numbers than 'burnout.' ...Teaching is a grueling job, and without the kind of social recognition that accompanies professions such as medicine and law, it is even harder for ambitious young people like me to stick with it."

Fine concludes "Even with eager rookies waiting in the wings. ... Having a base of teachers who teach for more than a token few years is critical to school reform. ... A teacher with experience is not always a good teacher, but a good teacher is always better after a few years of experience. As my former principal not-so-subtly put it: "The kids don't need one-year wonders. There is no such thing as a one-year wonder."

Four-year wonders are better than nothing, but still not enough." - John Thompson 

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Good teacher training programs at state schools have a higher retention rate than that. Of those who complete the teacher training program at my university and get jobs (never a sure thing, that), 85% are still teaching five years later.

Fine has drawn both sympathy and flak for her decision. Many of the reader comments in the post centered on assumptions about true grit and moral fiber. Fine's biggest critics suggested that she lacked both. Unfortunately, such comments distract from the important questions she raises about teacher working conditions. Teachers like you and others who remain in challenging environments deserve high praise. But, as Barnett Berry notes, we cannot focus exclusively on getting the right people into the profession without creating the kind of environment that promotes their sustained success.

You're a soldier, John Thompson.

There is a certain machismo borne that is the dirty little secret of the No Excuses school movement. Teach For America bears some responsibility for this too. We recruit energetic young mold-breakers to tough classrooms and motivate them with a "leave it on the field" mentality that taps into their youth, energy, dedication and determination. I would say we exploit it, but I don't want to judge harshly. But I don't believe it's a sustainable model. At the very least, you find yourself questioning your fitness to teach when you (inevitably) can't maintain that level of effort after a few years. I was Sara Fine two years ago. I signed up for two years, stayed for five, but when I couldn't figure out a way to maintain my level of work (in my mind, hours on the job was a key indicator of my level of effectiveness) I felt I was becoming exactly the kind of teacher I had signed up to replace. In retrospect, I would have benefitted from the presence of a high-performing senior teacher to show me how to be both effective AND efficient. But that might not be part of the model

Claus,

I'm glad you picked up on the comments. I'll discuss them tomorrow. Michael, I think we need all routes into the profession. I was pushing 40 when I entered the public school classroom through alternative certification. The successes I'd experienced weren't nearly as beneficial as the defeats that had taught me what I needed most in the urban classroom. Of course, being older has its disadvantages too. I'm so digitally awkward that I've been unable to access the CK blog ... good to hear from you again, Robert.

I strongly suggest reading the new principal's response to Sarah's article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/10/AR2009081003018.html

Fascinating the different expectations of teacher character and skills and school culture reflected in these different perspectives -- teacher and leader -- from one school.

http://www.midwifeofdemocracy.blogspot.com

Ellen,

Thanks for the link to Midwife to Democracy. I love that name. Isn't that our real jobs as teachers?

I also loved the comments to the principal's letter which you linked too. They were far more wise than the comments to Ms. Fine's piece. (and in the article and comments, I stilll didn't learn anything that would allow me to think poorly of Sara Fine as a teacher.)

Tomorrow, I will focus on the worst of the attacks on Ms. Fine. But your links reminded me of some of the most profund comments on her piece. You've prompted me to revisit this.

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