Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Can't Get No [tuh-duh-DUH] Satisfaction!

Sunday afternoon ... Starbucks.  Seated in my view is a young teacher.  When I arrive about one o'clock, she is sitting there near where I end up (seats at a premium this afternoon), and I see she is marking stacks of homework and quizzes.  She seems to have been there awhile.  I know.  Throughout my own career, I spent more than a thousand Sundays surrounded by mountain ranges of papers. When I leave two hours later--my reading and other work done--she is still there, grading, showing no signs that she is finished.

I still belong to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), an organization I belonged to most of my career--as did my mother before me.  (She and I published our first articles--decades apart--in NCTE's English Journal.  When I got the acceptance letter back in 1970, I felt I'd won the Pulitzer, and when the little article appeared in November that year, I was sure I'd be getting offers from the New York Times--hell, maybe even some good news from Stockholm.  Need I say that neither happened?)

Each week NCTE sends to its members an online publication called Inbox--mostly a collection of annotated links to stories and information that we may find useful or provocative.  I usually see something to click on.  Last week it was a little headline: "Teacher Job Satisfaction at 25-Year Low."  The link took me to The MetLife Survey of the American Teacher (Link), and there I found what you see in red below:

Teacher satisfaction continues to decline.
 Teacher satisfaction has declined 23 percentage points since 2008, from 62% to 39% very satisfied, including five percentage points since last year, to the lowest level in 25 years. 
 Half (51%) of teachers report feeling under great stress several days a week, an increase of 15 
percentage points over 36% of teachers reporting that level in 1985.
 Less satisfied teachers are more likely than very satisfied teachers to be in schools where budgets 
declined in the last 12 months (61% vs. 47%) and to identify maintaining an adequate supply of 
effective teachers (58% vs. 43%) and creating and maintaining an academically rigorous learning 
environment (66% vs. 56%) as challenging or very challenging for school leaders.
 Less satisfied teachers are more likely to be located in schools that had declines in professional 
development (21% vs. 14%) and in time for collaboration with other teachers (29% vs. 16%) in the 
last 12 months.
 Nearly all teachers (97%) give high ratings to other teachers in their schools.

Well, I'm shocked.  Mostly because the numbers are not even worse.  It's hard for me to believe that 38% of teachers are satisfied with their jobs.  But, you know, teachers generally are positive folks--after all, they've joined a profession that's under continuous fire from every ship and battery and political pot-shotter in the country.  And, of course, teachers like to give good grades.  I read recently that the most common grade in colleges these days is ... an A.  Oh, did I go to college in the wrong decade!

I have not taught in a while, but I can tell you--watching my former colleagues, reading about the profession--why I would be "dissatisfied" with the job nowadays.  I've got a little list ...
  • Standardized testing.  Tests have gone from being a moderately useful tool--a source of information--to Holy Writ.  For some reason, we believe that numbers always mean something--or mean what they purport to mean.  If a kid gets a score on a test, then the kid becomes his/her score.  No one seems to ask--at least not too loudly--where the numbers come from--or if they are measuring anything of value--or just something that's easy to measure.
  • Endless teacher evaluations.  When I began my career, no one evaluated me--not for a number of years.  That wasn't good.  True, I continually evaluated myself, of course, every period, every day, always falling short of where I wanted to be.  I had great colleagues from whom I learned--whom I emulated in ways that fit with own personality and capabilities.  But that's not sufficient.  Then there was a period of years when I got an annual checklist, done by the principal, usually the result of a single classroom visit.  Better than nothing, but not all that useful.  As the years went on, the process became more and more complex, more and more frequent.  Frequency is good; complexity is not.  Evaluations should help teachers identify their strengths and make them stronger, identify their weaknesses and help to bolster them.  Nowadays, I often read that advocates of more intensive evaluations want to use them  not to improve instruction but to "weed out" the worst teachers.  That's a morale-booster.
  • Being judged by student performances on standardized tests. When the 8th Grade Proficiency Tests arrived in Ohio, it used to anger me that kids' scores were my fault. (I taught 8th grade English at the time.) The tests came in March.  I'd had the kids about six months of their lives, forty-two minutes a day, five days a week.  And it was my fault when they scored poorly?  Don't get me started ...
  • Increased paper-work and other administrative hassles.  Don't get me ...
  • Parents who can't believe their kid is capable of error--or evil.  When I was a student, my parents told me that if I got in trouble in school, I could expect more of the same at home. (I found out on several occasions that they were true to their word.)  I found this same attitude prevailing throughout my early career.  And then it changed.  Later in my career, I dealt--routinely--with parents who assumed I was wrong, the kid right.
  • The declining public regard for teachers.
  • The notion that everyone's an expert on education.  I routinely read op-ed pieces and hear talking heads blather on about schools--and so often this blather is coming from people who never taught a second in their lives.  Their qualification to blather?  They attended school.  And they have strong opinions.  (That, I guess, qualifies me to formulate medical policy since I was born in a hospital and have been back a few times.)
  • The insidious notion that every teacher should be great.  Really?  Everyone an all-star?  In what other large occupation or profession is that a reasonable standard?  Every school--from Harvard University to Tobacco Road Middle School--has great, good, bad, ugly teachers.  Sure, we want more of the former, fewer of the others.  But insisting on universal excellence in a low-paying, low-status profession is madness.
  • The people who know the least often wield the most power in the profession.  I've spent my entire adult life as a teacher of English--and as a professional freelance writer.  I have nearly 1500 publications--books, essays, reviews (many more online).  Yet I was rarely asked what I thought we ought to be doing in reading and writing. I was invariably told.
  • The standardization of the curriculum.  Everyone doing the same thing on the same day in the same way ... hard to imagine a worse way to get children excited about learning.
  • Over-crowded classes--too many classes--too many different daily preparations.  When I began teaching, I had 200 students a day, three different class preparations.  The years went on.  Thirty became the "normal" class size--six classes a day.  Let's do a little math.  One hundred eighty students.  Each writes a single-page essay.  I spend ten minutes per essay.  That's 1800 minutes.  Divided by 60?  Thirty hours of grading.  On a single assignment.  Minimum.  (I did like to eat and talk to my family now and then.)  Then there's the other grading--the quizzes and tests and homework.  The preparation for classes.  The meetings.  The whatever.  School critics like to bark that teachers work only nine months.  Okay.  But during those nine months, many of us work seven days a week--plus evenings.
  • Etc.  I'm getting tired of this ... bet you are, too?
Thus ... those long Sunday hours at Starbucks ...


  1. Here in WA they have stopped grading homework. It can be handed in late because it doesn't count. They also allow students to retake tests and rewrite essays. I do think there is merit in a re-do but not for full credit. They spend the whole year teaching to the test. Not to mention changing how they teach math so you have no clue how to help your kid when they come home.

  2. I read your blog post after spending the whole day grading assignments. My hands are cramped from writing comments and my body sore from sitting at my desk for so long...yet my job satisfaction in teaching (higher education) is relatively high (after three decades). But I say this with May 2013 retirement closing in.