05 March 2013

Why Teachers Quit and How Technology Can Help

Let Me Set Up the Problem...
Some people look at a teacher and see a saint. Others see a sloth. Both are right, but both should be wrong. There are saints. They are rare, but they exist. They're the martyrs that sacrifice the rest of their lives in order to be great teachers. They motivate students. They change lives. There are also sloths. They're far more common than anyone is willing to admit. They find their comfortable routine, their pet projects and assignments, and their path of least resistance to summer.

There's this thing called the printing press, which will enable students to have their own copy of the curriculum.
Both of these archetypes should be wrong. I'm a family man, or at least a realist, and I don't believe anyone should sacrifice their life for a job. I also believe that education is far too important to allow so much incompetence and sloth persist. Unfortunately, so far what I've observed is that there's no way to be just a good, sane teacher, and that is why our education system is faltering.

Now for Some Examples...
I've heard statistics about how X number of teachers quit within the first five years. They just can't handle it. They can't be martyrs, nor will they allow themselves to become slothful, and the pay is the cherry on top. As for real-world examples, an administrator at my school admitted to me that he taught for seven years and just couldn't handle it, so he moved to administration where it's not as demanding. A counselor at my school, in the same conversation, admitted the same thing. He couldn't deal with the stresses of being a classroom teacher anymore, so he became a counselor where he still deals with rough students and their even-worse parents, but it's not as tough as being a teacher. In other words, they're reinforcing my theory: as a teacher, you have four options:

  1. you're a great teacher at the expense of the rest of your life,
  2. you're a lackluster teacher at the expense of actually making a difference,
  3. you do it for a few years but quit as soon as something better comes along, or
  4. you go crazy.
Impossible Solutions
Two things could be done to alleviate the pressure on teachers: (1) pay them more and/or hire more teachers to reduce class sizes, or (2) start with better parents. Unfortunately, neither option is even remotely viable without massive economic and cultural change.

There's this thing called a computer that can automatically perform all sorts of tasks, freeing us up to do who-knows-what.
Possible Solution
However, I feel inclined to believe that a third solution exists. Teaching will never be easy—no fulfilling endeavor is—but it could be manipulated into being more manageable while still being effective. The third solution is technology. Technology itself is not the magic bullet, but I believe we're reaching a point where technology is advanced enough and technology in the classroom has matured enough for us to finally take full advantage and fill the void left by funds and parents.

Nine Obligations to Be Met
Below I will delineate several of the extremely demanding expectations that great teachers have and consequently how technology can either fulfill the obligation, streamline it, or free up the teacher to be able to handle it him/herself.
  1. Teaching. Yes, teaching itself. It's probably the reason most people even want to become a teacher. They had an experience where they got to explain a concept and see growth in a pupil, and they liked it. Unfortunately, it is one of the smallest aspects of actually being a teacher, and it's getting replaced by technology. By having teachers create multimedia of concepts, demonstrations and the rest of lessons, they can free up class time to perform other tasks. Explain Everything on the iPad (there are more) and Screencast-o-Matic on the computer are both excellent ways to create these lessons. Also try Brainshark. Of course, you need a teacher website (Google Sites or Weebly) or an Edmodo to share these lessons.
  2. Grading. Objective grading can be replaced by computers, which is a good thing. Subjective grading, which I believe is more important, must be performed by a classroom teacher. Although it can't be performed by a computer, it can be streamlined. Use DROPitTOme to quickly gather digital assignments for grading, or try Google Forms to have students submit links to their work. Do it all in Edmodo which can also work as a gradebook.
  3. Communication and Feedback. It's one thing for a student to see a grade and infer what it means, but much better for a teacher to actually explicitly communicate with the student what was done well, what could be improved, or what's missing. Edmodo is an excellent source for this. You can write comments on submitted assignments. You can post notes for groups to see when they log in, or even respond to student questions.
  4. Parent Communication. There are far too many parents who simply don't care enough to get involved, but there are still plenty that do care. Parents can be strong allies in student growth, as well as bitter enemies, and therefore communication with them is crucial. There are numerous apps that do this, but a simple Google Form disclosure form automatically creates a quickly searchable database of parent contact information. It would be nice to have an automated system that sends an email to both parents and students when certain things happen. Don't miss a day for a whole month? Automated email to congratulate them. Five straight assignments turned in on time, or two missing assignments in a row, or whatever you want to alert them about. If I knew more about programming (2014 goal), maybe I could create my own.
  5. Behavior Management. This is and may forever be my nemesis. I teach grades 7-9, and 9th graders in particular have always driven me mad. Nevertheless, technology can still help either directly or indirectly. There are apps available to track behavior points both positive and negative, like Class Dojo. There are also simple habits and procedures to employ, including daily primers for when students enter the classroom, or greeting students at the door to let them know you know who they are and that you care. You can use surveys on Edmodo, or have students respond to notes as forms of primers.
  6. Planning. For new teachers, this probably occupies a big chunk of time, but I anticipate that chunk shrinks with time and experience. I've seen a few tools that brush on the idea of providing state and national standards to strive toward, which would be nice. Until then, new teachers can try setting up a website (just for themselves to see and use) to organize units, assignments, and ideas.
  7. Rolling Out Assignments. It's a little odd, perhaps, for this to have its own category, but I find that it's a pretty big deal. Students must be aware of assignment and project expectations in order for them to have any confidence in completing it correctly. In order for students to be this aware, teachers have to dedicate a great deal of time to explain it all. Once again I invoke the name of Edmodo as the answer, but not the only answer. The great advantage of Edmodo is the ability to create assignments and due dates that students see, but also include descriptions, attachments, and videos. The alternative that I've used extensively is to create a blog or other website that students can consult to clarify assignment requirements and expectations.
  8. One-on-One Time. I've always been a fairly awkward person, which restricts my ability to perform this crucial task. I have a hard time looking people in the eye when I talk to them, I'm not any good at confrontations, and worst of all, I always forget to do these things. But I was complaining to my wife about how difficult some of my students are, and she told me about her junior high experience, and so often she had no idea what she was missing or what she was doing wrong until a teacher took her aside. As it's a new thing I'm going to try to incorporate, I can't say yet how to use technology to help. It will probably be indirect. With the time saved by flipping the classroom (see #1 above), there will be more time to run a quick check of grades every once-in-a-while and pull students aside. It would be nice to have the tech I mentioned in #4.
  9. Collaborate with Faculty. The faculty have become a great asset to me. For one thing, it's very important to maintain good rapport with as many teachers, administrators, and support staff as possible, both for sanity but also because they can help out significantly. But more importantly, you can work with faculty to create more interesting and engaging projects that require students to make connections previously unmade. In my graphic design class, specifically, I have teachers and staff always coming to me with design work they need to have done, which then becomes an assignment for my students, one they're motivated to do well. Anyway, now that I've convinced you of the importance of faculty collaboration, let me now offer the tech that helps it: email. It only just helps. You still have to be a human.
In the end it almost looks like I believe Edmodo is the magic bullet. It could be, with a few tweaks. All I'm saying is that the tech is available, and if we're to be able to be good teachers and maintain our sanity, we need to embrace it.

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