A Broken System: Teacher Burnout And High Turnover Rates Hurt Black Children The Most

August 27, 2019  |  

Elementary, African American girl with mom on first day of school.

Source: fstop123 / Getty

America is in the midst of an education crisis. Sadly, this deeply fractured education system is hurting students of color the most. Throughout our series, Broken System, we will highlight some of the most pressing issues impacting Black students today.

I made it five months in a Bronx public school before submitting my resignation. The stress of working in such a chaotic environment quickly began taking a toll on my physical and emotional health. The result was several trips to the emergency room and numerous visits to multiple specialists’ offices as they attempted to pinpoint what could be causing me to experience chronic hives that were so severe they caused my face, tongue, and lips to swell.

During those episodes, I would look completely disfigured. I swore it was an allergy and underwent extensive allergy testing only for two different allergists to tell me they found absolutely nothing. At the end of my third allergy evaluation, I broke down in tears. I was at my breaking point and a jittery mess. I had been consistently taking Benadryl to keep the hives under control and downing cans of Red Bull to offset the drowsiness brought on by the antihistamine. I just wanted to get to the bottom of what was wrong with me so I could be sure that my throat wouldn’t close during the next episode. I was 100 percent living life on the struggle bus.

After months of testing, the doctor concluded that the culprit was stress. The 80-hour work weeks, out-of-control classrooms, my own incompetence due to inexperience and my sometimes hostile work environment had begun to catch up with me. I was burning out before my career in education had even begun.

“In time, you’ll be a great asset to this field,” my mentor pulled me aside and whispered to me one day. “However, if you don’t get out of this place, you’ll be turned off from this profession for good – not to mention your health.”

It was the second or third time that month that someone suggested that I prioritize self-preservation above all else and leave the school. I’d be lying if I said it never crossed my mind prior to those conversations; however, I often thought of my students – who didn’t have a choice but to be there at a school that was failing them daily – and attempted to stick it out. My moment of reckoning came on a crisp day in November. It was the day after Thanksgiving Break had ended and the thought of returning to work made my stomach hurt. That discomfort sat with me the entire ride into work and as soon as I set foot onto school ground, I couldn’t stop crying. I wept uncontrollably until I could hear my class lining up outside of the classroom door. I still don’t know where I found the strength to pull myself together. I managed to get through teaching that day, but I knew my days there were numbered. By Christmas, I had submitted my formal resignation and I was a free woman exactly 30 days later.

Teacher burnout is real. According to Insider, more than 40 percent of teachers leave the field within the first five years. Sadly, these high turnover rates impact Black and Hispanic students and those living in high poverty neighborhoods the most. A 2016 study by the Learning Policy Institute found teacher turnover rates in Title I schools, which generally have higher concentrations of low-income students, are 50 percent higher in comparison to other school districts and 70 percent higher for schools with higher concentrations of students of color.

Teacher turnover hurts student achievement in a few ways. According to a report by the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, teacher turnover impacts students in both math and reading.

“The results indicate that students in grade-levels with higher turnover score lower in both ELA and math,” the study’s authors explained. “This effect is particularly strong in schools with more low-performing and Black students.”

Breaking the news to my students that I was leaving them was hard. I cried a lot. Them, not so much. It was evident that they were hurt that I was leaving, but life had already hardened them in some ways. Their facial expressions communicated to me what their words had not: They had become used to this type of abandonment because as one girl put it, “The good teachers always leave.”

In many ways, I felt like a failure, but part of me also knew that as inexperienced as I was, I was of no real use to them besides being a warm body in a classroom so that they were not unsupervised for a couple of periods out of the day. Sure, I had the content knowledge but I knew nothing about teaching middle school English. I hadn’t been in a middle school classroom since I was a middle schooler myself. I was in over my head.

Teaching at a failing school when you have zero teaching experience can be a traumatic ordeal. Though I considered abandoning teaching altogether, I decided that I couldn’t leave the field completely. There’s a tremendous need for teachers in urban cities, especially teachers of color. I took a $12,000 pay cut and accepted an apprentice teacher job at a nearby charter school in Harlem. I figured that in addition to studying education in school, I needed to witness what effective teaching was actually supposed to look like in action. When I finally returned to my own classroom the following school year, I was more knowledgeable and experienced, which resulted in a more fruitful educational experience for my students.

I had to take a step back to take two steps forward. It was one of the best decisions I ever made for myself, but I can’t say that it helped my former students that I left behind. The majority of them were shuffled along to high school grossly unprepared. My former school was closed the following year due to poor performance. The cycle continued.

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