Burning Out on Burnout Stories

By 08/20/2009

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‘Tis the season for teacher burnout stories.  In the Washington Post Sarah Fine, a bright, young Teach for America teacher, explains why she is leaving teaching after three years: “When people ask, I tend to cite the usual suspect — burnout. I just couldn’t take it anymore, I explain.”  Over at Eduwonk Maria Fenwick explains why she’s leaving Boston Public Schools: “The best way I can describe what happened over the course of four years is a gradual wearing down of my spirit.”

If the purpose of these stories is to highlight the structural problems with public schools that discourage bright, young folks from entering or staying in teaching, that would be fine.  It’s worth reminding people that public schools can’t be fixed simply by recruiting eager missionaries from elite colleges without also adopting the systemic reforms that would attract, retain, and motivate more people like them.

But I suspect that these burnout stories are informed by and perpetuate a conviction that turnover in teachers in inherently a bad thing.  It isn’t.  What’s bad is a system that permits, through the inability to dismiss ineffective teachers, and encourages, through a a perverse pension system, people to continue teaching well after they have burned out.

Burnout is a normal part of high-skilled, important professions.  Relatively few doctors remain as ER physicians for a long period of time.  Relatively few bond or commodity traders remain on the trading floor after a long period of time.  Many of them either move on to management positions or they switch to other lines of work.  We do lose the benefit of their training and experience, but we avoid staffing important positions with people who have sub-par performance because they are burnt-out.

Maybe we should become more comfortable with turnover in education.  Maybe schools should be run more like summer camps.  We would rely on a large number of bright, young, and enthusiastic teachers, most of whom would leave after a few years.  Some would stay longer to preserve the culture and order of the organization that more experienced hands can bring.  Maybe we can borrow more talented people for teaching than we could buy.

And the alleged benefits of teacher experience are often over-stated.  Yes, teachers tend to get better after the first year or two, but the effect is not huge.  Focusing on recruiting and retaining teachers who are bright, energetic, and not yet burnt-out will almost certainly outweigh the loss of experience.

It’s a shame that entrenched education bureaucracies discouraged Ms. Fine and Ms. Fenwick, but perhaps they would have burned-out even under more positive conditions.  What matters most is getting teachers out of the classrooms when they are no longer able to be effective.  Ms. Fine and Ms. Fenwick, perhaps because they were so bright and committed, could recognize when the spark had faded and know when to get out.  We really need to worry about a system that discourages burned-out people from leaving.

Comment on this article
  • Marci Kanstoroom says:

    In case you missed it, the Washington Post published a letter to the editor in response to Sarah Fine’s article by her principal at Cesar Chavez the next day. You can find the letter here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/10/AR2009081003018.html

  • corey says:

    For the our country’s schools as a whole, teaching past burnout is probably a bigger problem than teacher retention. But I have yet to see evidence that this is true in our most troubled schools which, let’s be honest, are the ones that most people want to see changed.

    In the average high-poverty Bronx middle school, nearly one-half of all teachers are in their first or second year in that school (yes, excluding all the new schools that have been formed in the past few years), while less than one-third of teachers have five years or more of experience.

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