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Sunday, April 29, 2007

A Photographic Project Idea: Dropout Teachers

The issue: Teacher retention. More and more school districts, especially but not exclusively in high-poverty areas, are experiencing what's called "high churn rate"—excessive teacher turnover due to burnout, low morale, and poor teaching conditions.

What could be pictured: Still active but "disillusioned teachers; teachers who've already dropped out, showing who they are and what they're doing now; illustrations of the top 10 reasons (named in the article) that teachers cite for leaving.

Might be a good project for: A teacher, a college student, anyone whose work takes them to schools, a photographer who can't travel much but can get to one or more area schools.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON

Featured Comment by Adam McAnaney: "I know this post (and this blog) are about photography, but this hit a nerve. No need to post this comment if you would rather avoid the controversy, but here are my thoughts. I briefly taught fourth and fifth graders in a public school in one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City. I’m no longer a teacher.

"For starters, there are lots of reasons for the problems with our schools, but bad teachers have to be very low on the list. They obviously exist, but they are few in number and a product of the system. If you solved the other problems with our public schools, you would have far fewer bad teachers and the impact of those that remained would approach nil. Of course, there are so many problems with our public schools, that it is laughable to say something like 'If you solved the other problems with our public schools, then….' Indeed, I think the magnitude of the school problem has prevented serious efforts at solving it. I could go on and on, but there are plenty of books on this subject, written by people who have far more experience and better credentials than I do. I will point to two issues, however:

"1. While I suspect that David Jenkins and I would disagree on a great many issues, I sympathize with his feelings about the lack of discipline and the fact that kids know they are untouchable. Think about any and every form of discipline you every experienced as a child. All of those are probably considered corporal punishment and disallowed. No detention. No writing phrases 50x (though, to be honest, this always struck me as a silly punishment anyway). No sitting in the back of the class. Writing or calling home is pointless (partly due to a lack of discipline at home, partly due to parents overwhelmed by other problems and partly due to a reflexive tendency on the part of today’s parents to defend their children and blame other children or the teacher). So what’s left? Well, you can keep kids in during lunch and prevent them from playing on the playground. Except that only works every third day, because the school is overcrowed and supposedly 'temporary' trailers have been erected in the schoolyard, leaving only a fraction of the space available for lunchtime play. So the classes rotate days on which they are allowed to go out during lunchtime. On the other days, the students have to sit in the cafeteria the whole time. Disgraceful.

"2. Which brings us to the bigger problem with our schools. While money doesn’t solve everything (and I agree that teachers’ salaries aren’t the biggest problem), it helps. All of the issues raised by the article point to a lack of resources, and resources cost money. More administrative staff to reduce paperwork, more teachers, more classrooms, more teaching assistants, more money to make schools look like schools, rather than run-down penitentiaries. Of course, some schools have all of these things. Why? Because the vast majority of school funding in the United States is derived from local property taxes. Big surprise that kids in poorer areas with low property values underperform. And since parents tend to move from areas with below-average schools to areas with better schools once they have a high-enough income, this becomes a self-reinforcing cycle. The well-off move to high-income areas with better schools, contributing their tax dollars to a system that is already doing well, and depriving their old neighborhood of a chance at turning the tide. This is such a perverse funding system, that nobody outside the U.S. could ever imagine why we established it. (Yes, I know there are historical reasons. But at some point we need to update our structures to confront modern realities.)

"Ultimately, however, people expect too much from schools. Students probably spend around six hours a day in class, receiving instruction. During the other 18 hours of each day, during weekends, during vacation and holidays, they are out of schools’ reach. We can’t expect schools to solve the greater problems in our society, although neglecting schools will certainly contribute to those problems.

"Okay, I’m done. Just thinking about this makes me angry and sad. I couldn’t say all I have to say if I had 100+ pages to say it in. I don’t have the time or the energy to try, and I know that even if I did, it wouldn’t make a difference. I could have made a difference if I had stayed, but I didn’t. Which makes me angrier (at myself) and sadder and a part of the problem."

Featured Comment by Robert Roaldi: "Most of the time, we get what we pay for.

"Public education used to be considered important because we believed that it was advantageous to a society that large numbers of people in it be able to read, think, and reason.

"The fact that we are seemingly not willing to pay for this any longer (I say we even though I live in Canada) seems to suggest that we don't see the link between an educated populace and a decent society in which to live. (Or at least, that it's okay if a lot of us don't have access to it.) It is a spectacular failure of imagination.

"We moronically complain about the cost of public education and related high taxes, but we never calculate the cost of not funding public education, even though those costs are staring us in the face every time we walk out the door.

"The occasional bad teacher during one's schooling is not in itself a bad thing. If nothing else it teaches you to recognize nitwits and that sometimes nitwits get into positions of authority. This can be a valuable lesson in life.

"I wish I knew how to turn this state of affairs into a photographic essay. It must be one of the most high profile failures of our culture. We used to have good public education and we are letting it slip away. How do you photograph stupidity?"

27 Comments:

Blogger Dave Jenkins said...

Mike, as a former teacher in inner-city schools (Miami, FL) and a political conservative, I could tell you a great deal about why teachers drop out. But as a Socialist/Liberal, you probably wouldn't believe any of it.

But, speaking to the point of your post, rotsa ruck getting into public schools with your camera. I do it some, because I work occasionally for the local Public Education Foundation, but heaven help anyone who doesn't have some kind of sponsorship.

Dave Jenkins

6:41 PM  
Blogger Dwight Jones said...

At least one study found a relatively high percentage of teachers are millionaires by the time they retire. They start earning a middle-class income at a fairly young age and have fewer educational loans than other professionals do. If a young teacher puts the max into his 401k, the interest will compound for 40+ years.

I'm not trying to slam teachers. I'm just pointing out that education would be a good occupation for a young person to consider. He will be financially secure much sooner as a teacher than he would as a doctor who starts earning at a later age, has massive debts to pay, and finally ends up in a high tax bracket while being married to a "doctor's wife."

7:36 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Wow, what's with all the labels and stereotypes all of a sudden?

My brother's a doctor and his wife is...a doctor.

--Mike

8:00 PM  
Blogger Raphael Aizan said...

Neat idea...my mom is a retired college professor who trained foreign language teachers. She did lots of supervising all over LAUSD. On the other hand, I kinda despise teachers.

8:59 PM  
Blogger Dave Jenkins said...

Sorry, Mike. It wasn't fair of me to stereotype you. I don't apologize for the label, because you applied the term "Socialist" to yourself recently on this blog. But I have been reading you for a long time, and you do defy stereotyping. As I said to you some years ago and as you have quoted me on your 37th frame web site, "You are never bland."

All that said, though, my wife and I are both former teachers. My oldest son is a career teacher. He was for about ten or twelve years a successful junior college basketball coach, as well as carrying a classroom teaching load (English), and later was the academic dean at a junior college in Atlanta. As a juco teacher, he saw first hand the product of our defective education system.

It is, frankly, almost impossible to teach in many school systems. The paperwork requirements are burdensome, but far worse is the failure of discipline. Kids come from homes where there is no discipline, and in school they know they are basically untouchable. A few exceptional teachers are able to function and actually accomplish something worthwhile in the midst of this chaos, but for most it is disheartening and ultimately does not appear to them to be worth the effort to continue.

It might be possible for a teacher to carry his/her camera into school and document what goes on, but the privacy laws are such these days that such a teacher would probably find himself/herself quickly called on the principal's carpet.

I spent my last two teaching years in a private school just as I began to develop an interest in photography. I was able to carry my camera with me at all times and document the life of the school. I doubt it would be possible to do that today in a public school.

At any rate, my final year of teaching, I was appointed yearbook supervisor. I did all the candids for the yearbook and found that I liked photography better than teaching and began the transition to a full-time photography career.

I still miss being in the classroom with the kids, and sometimes wonder if I made the right decision. I'll be 70 in two weeks, so it doesn't look like I'll be going back!

Dave Jenkins

9:03 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Thanks for the note Dave. I only taught for a little less than three years and would still like to go back to it. It's not really a practical option for me, though.

As for not going back because you're 70, one of my favorite old age stories came from a documentary about centenarians. They had an interview with a tiny little old lady. She was a schoolteacher too, retired when she was 65, and had a great time in retirement for 20 years or so, lots of socializing and playing bridge, but then she said her friends began to get sick and die. At 90 she moved into a small apartment and essentially kept to herself, expecting that she did not have long to live. She lived that way for 10 years. On her 100th birthday, she said she woke up, looked at herself in mirror, and said, "Well, looks like I'm not going to die. Better get a job."

So she got a job as a docent in the local museum. By the time she was interviewed for the show, she had been a docent for nine years, which was long enough to make her the "senior docent!" (Made me laugh.) Her comment was, "I really don't know what's going to happen now. I suppose I have to die sometime." She was 109!

So you never know, you could have another 39 years, and may have to get another job before the next thirty years are up.

Good health to you!

--Mike

9:18 PM  
Blogger Dave Jenkins said...

Thanks for the kind words and the great story, Mike. My mother-in-law taught in the Miami-Dade County, FL school system until she was 80. She started out teaching sixth-graders, and as she got older, dropped to lower and lower grades until at the end she was teaching kindergarten!

My wife says I should go back to school for a MFA in photography and teach. Unfortunately, I'm of the opinion that photography is something that can be learned, but not taught.

Dave Jenkins

9:41 PM  
Blogger stanco said...

I'm neither conservative nor stereotype, but I was an "inner city" teacher of students officially classified as "Extremely Emotionally Disturbed & Socially Maladjusted" for 17 years in NYC and CA. I ended my education career when I decided to stand up to a certain full of himself supervisor in a new district where I didn't have tenure.

If you really want to know why the public education system is in such shambles- I could certainly point you in the right direction(s). But don't take my word for it- just google Johnathan Kozol, a decent, honest man who has dedicated his entire life to rectifying the situation, instead of capitalizing
on it.

That said, I too, often thought of documenting my work, but have done so only within the short story realm- privacy issues in the public ed system are, in fact, prohibitive...

11:13 PM  
Blogger stanco said...

I would love to know the studies that claimed "a relatively high percentage of teachers are millionaires by the time they retire."

And I'd love to know the stats for Special Ed teachers-- our average career lasts two years before burnout...

2:17 AM  
Blogger mike said...

Those who can — do.
Those who can't — teach.
Those who can't teach — manage.

3:15 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

You could also add nursing to the list along with police officers. These jobs once were the realm of the middle classes and it was possible to have a comfortable standard of living from them. Now with the costs of tertiary education, wages that have got kept pace with other sectors and increasing stifling bureaucracy with diminishing resources means that people are now leaving in their droves and replacements are not being found. The interesting thing is that this is not confined to one country or one political ideology, it is a global phenomena and no-one quite knows where it will end.

So there are 3 potential stories.

3:53 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"I kinda despise teachers"

Dude, I so hear you. I despise circus animals, twenty-somethings, people whose last names begin with "L," and people with light brown hair. I mean, be brunette or be blond, but be one or the other, am I right?

--Mike

6:40 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"At least one study found a relatively high percentage of teachers are millionaires by the time they retire."

Those inner-city teachers are just gaming the system, all right. And you know who else is just collecting money? Barbers. All they do is cut hair. And don't get me started on work release programs! They're PRISONERS--what could they possibly need money for? They're just taking money out of the pockets of high-earners who deserve tax breaks and who made this country great. Let's elect Tommy Thompson President. He'll get to the bottom of this inner-city-teacher scam.

--Mike

6:48 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Oh, and those inner-city teachers? I hear they have FRUGAL WIVES, the bastards.

--Mike

6:49 AM  
Blogger Dwight Jones said...

Sorry,
The "doctor's wife" comment wasn't fair. The rest of my post was. Education is a good occupation for a young person to consider. Teachers earn their money and do a great service for society. They also start earning a decent income at a young age, they avoid massive debt, and have more time to earn for retirement. What's wrong with that?

7:28 AM  
Blogger Kevin said...

Public education. Oy.

Me as a kid in the 60's....I screw up in school, the teacher lays into me, and when I get home, I get the same from Mom and Dad.

2007...the kid screws up and school, the teacher lays into them, and when they get home, Mom and Dad file a lawsuit against the school system.

I've got a couple of teachers in the family, and this is only a light exaggeration.

7:54 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"Sorry,
The 'doctor's wife' comment wasn't fair. The rest of my post was. Education is a good occupation for a young person to consider. Teachers earn their money and do a great service for society. They also start earning a decent income at a young age, they avoid massive debt, and have more time to earn for retirement. What's wrong with that?"

The only problem with that is that it's directly contrary to the subject of the post and linked article, which brings up the fact that lots of people are leaving the profession altogether. If teaching conditions were better and people felt satisfied enough with their careers that they could stay in the profession for 40 years, then your point would be valid. And I'm sure it's true for some teachers in some school systems. But those weren't the ones we were talking about.

--Mike

8:16 AM  
Blogger Dwight Jones said...

Burn out/drop out is a very real problem in many occupations. I've never been a teacher, but it seems that they would have some unique advantages and disadvantages- mostly disadvantages. The teacher is usually not in a position to slow down during the middle of the school year. He has little control over his working conditions or the people he comes he works with. He can't fire the disruptive student or parent...

On the other hand, a teacher doesn't have to borrow money to set up a practice. Someone without debt is free to quit while other people work through it. That could be seen as an advantage or a disadvantage.

I still think education would be a good occupation for a young person to consider.

8:23 AM  
Blogger Charlie Didrickson said...

I want to know what they are donig now.

Think of all the exotic lands you'll travel to keeping pace with that "teachin,cheatin jet-set crowd!

Don't forget your swim trunks.....

8:50 AM  
Blogger Dwight Jones said...

Mike,
I've been thinking about this and I think you're right. I'm going to modify my position- "Education would be a good occupation for an EXTROVERTED young person to consider." I know some very happy teachers, but all of them are more extroverted than myself. I probably wouldn't fair as well as they do.

The introverted kid who likes science is likely to become a science teacher of go into certain areas of health care. Then, he ends up dealing with difficult people all day. No wonder they burn out!

I'm probably spending too much time thinking about this. It's one of my introvert quirks. Anyway, I'd like to apologize to anyone who was offended by my earlier post.

Dwight

9:12 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

No problem, Dwight, it's been nice sparring with you. That's what comments threads are all about. You're always welcome.

--Mike

9:15 AM  
Blogger Raphael Aizan said...

i was being facetious. just a little, since some teachers have been truly awful, and not even in a poverty stricken area, or to delinquents.

10:38 AM  
Blogger stanco said...

"Those who can't- teach."

I know, I know- I should just let it go...

Just can't get it through my head that people still insist on spouting such profound inanities. To those who insist on repeating (and believing) that little ditty- volunteer in any public ed high school for one day in any major city of your choosing. Email me after an hour.

PS- If you get the opportunity to look out the window, you just might see the welfare queen drive by in her pink Caddy.

4:41 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"the welfare queen drive by in her pink Caddy"

stanco,
You'll love this. One time, years ago, when I was teaching, I came into contact with a distant relative at a gathering at another relative's summer cottage. He asked me what I did for a living, and I told him I was a teacher.

He was shocked that I was a teacher even though I was male, because teaching was "work for women."

He then went off on an extended diatribe objecting to the fact that teachers got PAID. No paid too much, mind you--paid at all.

According to him, in his day, "little old ladies" became schoolteachers because they had "lots of free time" and "nothing better to do," and they were "glad" to do it for nothing. This little speech went on for long enough that it made several other people in the room uncomfortable. I kept quiet, but a few people spoke up in my defense.

The guy was a descendant of one of the founders of GM, and although he was in his 50s or 60s at the time, he himself had basically never worked a day in his life.

You know what they say: Oh well.

--Mike

6:08 PM  
Blogger Dave Richardson said...

Robert Roaldi: "Most of the time, we get what we pay for..."The fact that we are seemingly not willing to pay for this any longer (I say we even though I live in Canada) seems to suggest that we don't see the link between an educated populace and a decent society in which to live...It is a spectacular failure of imagination.

I live in California and can't speak to what Canada spends on education but our state spends approximately 51% of the ENTIRE state budget on it. Unless you are prepared to argue that there is nothing else of importance that's enough as far as I'm concerned.

As a side note, there was a story in the San Francisco Chronicle a couple of weeks ago. San Francisco is looking for a Superintendent of Schools. The woman who is currently filling in the job is trying to decide whether to take the job permanently or retire. She's been with the school district for 30 years and is in her early 50's. If she decides to retire she's entitled to 90% of her current salary. That works out to approximately $220K a year FOR THE REST OF HER LIFE. I find that simply outrageous. The school district must just be awash in cash and certainly doesn't need me to vote yes on any more school bonds.

-dave-

7:06 PM  
Blogger Robert Roaldi said...

dave richardson wrote "I live in California and can't speak to what Canada spends on education but our state spends approximately 51% of the ENTIRE state budget on it. Unless you are prepared to argue that there is nothing else of importance that's enough as far as I'm concerned."

I can't disagree.

There are similar horror stories here in Canada too. I would argue that monies spent in that manner have NOTHING to do with education. It's just the usual "scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" thinking that permeates our lives, more and more. That one just happens to occur in the educational establishment. It doesn't mean that public education is a bad thing.

The level of cash grab that occurs in the corporate world overwhelmingly dwarfs the odd outrage in the "public" sector. That's not an excuse, just a personal observation that privatization is no guarantee of anything. (I recently wrote a blog piece about the ex-CEO at that big box hardware store who received a severance of $210 million USD.) Often, private shareholders are no more protected from abuse from on high than are the citizenry.

So when you have a large percentage of the population that's utterly uneducated in the history and practice of human affairs, the ground is set for the kind of abuses that we are now complanining about. Our outrage at these things only arises because we have learned that they are bad things or at least acquired enough of an education to be able to read enough to know that these are bad things. If nobody taught us different, we'd think it was perfectrly normal to screw everybody else. We don't acquire civilized behaviour by osmosis; we have to be taught it, and one of the places where we learn the basics of civilization used to be in public schools. Why did we stop doing that?

But I still have no idea how to photograph the dilemma.

7:00 AM  
Blogger stanco said...

Bringing it back 360 to photography, I'm reminded of Jim Goldberg's brilliant Rich and Poor from the early 80's. In it, one participant proudly exclaims how he's not ashamed that he has never worked a single day in his life!

Robert, it may not be possible to concentrate photographically on the public education system itself, but since education (and the lack thereof) has such overwhelming consequences on all aspects of society- it would not be hard to focus in on one of its many tangents (eg- poverty, homelessness, drug abuse, crime, etc, etc).

PS- Mike, perhaps the person above was your guy, but I got a feeling there's quite a few more just like him...

http://www.magnumphotos.com/Archive/c.aspx?VP=XSpecific_MAG.BookDetail_VPage&pid=2K7O3R151ZH9

10:06 AM  

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