Opinion: NYC Teachers Need More Help to Combat Burnout

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Over the last six years I've watched dozens of talented, intelligent teachers leave the public schools in the Bronx neighborhood where I teach.

They did not leave because of reforms like the new teacher evaluation system or the adoption of higher learning standards. It was not because these teachers stopped caring about kids or didn't want to work hard. They left because they didn't have prospects as professionals, because the respect afforded them is minimal and because they simply burned out.

It likely comes as no surprise that I teach in one of the most impoverished areas of the city which, as a new report from the Independent Budget Office documents, experiences higher teacher turnover than wealthier neighborhoods. I see this turnover as perhaps the largest obstacle to creating the stable environments my students need. 

During the summer before my third year of teaching, I received a phone call from a good friend whose students had collaborated with mine electronically. We’d set up the call to talk about expanding the collaboration effort but before we began, she dropped a bomb: she was leaving teaching to work at a mobile phone company. The reason: no way for her to move up the career ladder. She loved the kids and her classroom, but she did not want to commit to a career in which she was not recognized for great work. What was more, she was exhausted.

Faced with the options of remaining a classroom teacher, jumping to the admin track, or finding a job outside the school system, many teachers make the latter choice. Still others join the vast army of consultants and professional developers as a way to work with children without many of the downsides.

For all the difficulties teachers face in every New York City school, those facing educators of our most disadvantaged youth are compounded. The new teachers’ contract begins to address this issue with a salary differential for teachers in certain “hard-to-staff” schools. But offering differential pay for hard-to-staff content areas – such as math, science, and special education – in low-income communities would go further still and would really acknowledge the gap between the poor communities and the wealthier in the city.

Paying for staff to train new teachers on site in their first years also would go a long way, both providing support for new teachers and career opportunities for veterans. The new contract moves in the right direction by providing two new roles directly related to teacher support: the model teacher and the master teacher.

Writing them into the contract is great, but the reality is that the leadership roles will cost money. If the city does not allocate funds for schools to install these positions, principals may be reluctant to create them in the first place. It’s crucial that the city and the teachers union genuinely support these efforts so that the kids who need it most finally get some stability.