Sunday, October 17, 2010

Why I Left Teaching: A Personal Example for the Ed Reform Movement

This post is part of the REBEL Education Reform Blogs Movement.  Posts from my fellow bloggers can be found here:

Ed Reform Focus: The Teaching Profession

So much has been written about Education Reform in the last few months that when it came time to write this post for Ed Reform, I struggled with what I could possibly have to say that someone before me hasn’t already contributed.

I eventually came to the conclusion that I can only share what I know best—my story--my unique experience as an elementary teacher who left the classroom to start a business in the field of education. There aren’t many of us out there, and I certainly never imagined I would be running a company for my long term career. When I began teaching in the fall of 2001, I planned on being in the classroom for the next 35-45 years. So why did I leave teaching, and how can my experience shed light on needed changes in our profession?

This week I read several blog posts referencing the McKinsey report:

The report shares that only 23% of US teachers are top college graduates and that teacher attrition is an issue in the United States. The report was applicable to my personal journey as an educator because I graduated at the very top of my class, and after five years of teaching, I left.

So what would have kept me in the classroom?

Money always seems to be the first factor examined when discussing how to attract and retain top talent to the teaching profession. Here in Eastern Iowa, I started at $22,000. I lived in a room in my parent’s house for the first two years of teaching until I got married and was able to combine my salary with my physical therapist husband to purchase our own home. One of my colleagues who was also a first year teacher had her own apartment, but by the time she paid for rent, utilities, gas and groceries, the last week of the month she spent eating bread and butter sandwiches because that was all she could afford until the next paycheck came. So yes, for beginning teachers in particular who are less likely to have a two income household, salary is a factor.

However, there are several other factors that would have played a more important role in keeping me in the profession and may be instrumental in helping all teachers perform at their highest levels for the benefit of students.

#1 Respect for the profession

Maybe this is simply a matter of teachers having the opportunity to educate the public about our profession. It is important for parents and the community to better understand what happens in the classroom on a daily basis from a teacher’s perspective.

#2 A focus on teaching

Maybe this is more of an elementary teacher issue, but have you ever noticed all of the non-academic demands placed on teachers? In my school they included: Creating bulletin boards, recess duty, lunch duty, weekly fluoride, business partner activities, and to some extent, classroom management and correcting papers--add to that district curriculum mapping, state career development plans, technology tracking, and enormous mounds of bureaucratic paperwork—and the end result is a teacher looking for time to plan learning experiences and deliver instruction. Maybe we should take a page from universities with teaching assistants where professors are the subject matter experts who only design and deliver lessons. I have always felt if I were able to focus my efforts on teaching I would have had increased time to individualize instruction for my students rather than feeling like I was teaching to the masses.

#3 Small Class Size

I was fortunate in this area . My largest class was 24 and my smallest 19. Fewer students = more individual attention, more personalized learning, and more time to respond to individual needs.

#4 Time To Prepare

Confession: I am a perfectionist. I wanted every lesson in my classroom to be exciting, interesting and effective. As a result, I worked every night and at least one full day every weekend on lesson planning. Yes, in subsequent years I could reuse materials, but they always required modification from my experience the previous year and for this year’s specific group of students. As a result, by the end of five years of teaching, I was burnt out. I didn’t have enough opportunity to relax and engage in my personal life so I could re-energize for my work with my students. I believe this factor would be remedied along with a solution to #2.

#5 Flexible Schedule

After leaving classroom, this is one fringe benefit of the traditional business world that I have truly enjoyed. I have the ability to schedule travel anytime not just around the school calendar. While this may seem like a petty request and may be impractical to apply to school reform, I believe it speaks to a quality of life issue regarding the life experiences that teachers are asked to sacrifice.

#6 Support

Administrative and parental support for academic and behavioral issues in the classroom is essential. Children will not respect teachers who are undermined by other adults. Without that mutual respect, classroom management is more difficult leading to reduced instructional effectiveness. (Note: I worked with an incredibly supportive principal and my students’ parents were fantastic. I know how important those two factors were to my success as an educator.)

#7 Equal accountability

I am accountable for the learning of the students in my classroom, and my students and their parents should be equally accountable. I can give 100% and do everything in my power to make learning relevant, to be entertaining and engaging, and to motivate my students to learn, but I can’t do it for them. They must also give 100% and work with their parents at home who are 100% participating in their child’s education. And for those students where parent participation it isn’t possible because of jobs or other family circumstances, we need to create a support system so those students can experience support for their education from adults other than their teacher.

I realize these examples are drawn from my personal experience in my small microcosm in Eastern Iowa. However, there are common human emotions, motivations, and experiences, so perhaps my journey can inform the efforts of reformers in other parts of the country. I realize it is easier to express what needs to be fixed than it is to offer solutions, but this is where I will defer to those more qualified to design scalable reforms that will impact large numbers of students more effectively than I could offer based on my single classroom experience.

I left the classroom because of a combination of these factors as well as the desire to make a difference in education in ways I could not within the walls of my classroom. Since founding StarrMatica five years ago, I have had the opportunity to impact thousands of students by making teaching with interactive content easier and less time consuming for their teachers. As teachers, we need to find the space in which we can uniquely contribute to ed reform and use our time and talents to improve our profession in small ways for the benefit of educators everywhere.


  1. Emily,

    Thank you for this post! I'm currently in my 4th year and understand the frustration. You make excellent points. I too wish all of these things could be considered. I actually did start in business and went into education. I also struggle with being able to do things when confined in the classroom. Maybe posts like yours can fall into the right hands...
    Best of luck to you in your business ventures!

  2. Hi Kristina,

    Thank you for taking the time to comment. I am hopeful that ed-reform will be able to turn in the direction of helping teachers to be more effective by understanding their daily classroom experiences and by supporting them more fully.

    I am enjoying the insight you offer on your blog based on your classroom experiences!

  3. Your number #2 reasons of all the extra work is so true! That part drives me insane! It seems that the type of personality that does well in teaching isn't always so good at the paperwork and such. Imagine if we could use that time instead for teaching we all would be amazing!

  4. Emily,
    Thank you for this thoughtful post. I could not agree more. I literally worked 70 hours a week my first 5 years of teaching. It has been 16 years now, and the income has definitely improved, but you hit the nail on the head with every one of these points. Regarding point#2, I often wonder why they pay me $80K per year to do yard duty when they could pay someone minimum wage to do the same while freeing me up to plan effective differentiated instruction!#6 & 7 are big ones too. I work in a school where many of the parents just don't do their part, and administration is less than helpful when it comes to supporting teachers in disciplinary action for the overabundance of behavior issues we're facing. You are an inspiration! Maybe I'll come up with an idea to start my own business and leave the classroom too.
    Thank you! Keep up the good work!


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