Want to keep teachers? Get rid of summer break / by Chris Duffy

Published in the Boston Globe on Sunday, January 15, 2012

EVERY SUNDAY since I started teaching, I’ve forced myself to go into school to prep materials and set up my classroom. During the week, I’m in the classroom before the sun rises. After a full day of teaching, I tutor my struggling students, make phone calls to parents, scrub desks, and sharpen pencils. Here’s the thing, though: I’m not some uniquely hard-working teacher. In fact, in two years, I’ve never once been the first teacher in the building and only twice have I been the last to leave. I feel truly lucky to work in a school with such dedicated colleagues. However, I wonder how sustainable this lifestyle is.

Nationally, about half of all teachers leave within three years of starting to teach. As many as 80 percent of Teach for America teachers leave after year three, according to a recent study by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice. A lot of talk in the current education debate focuses on how to attract the best and brightest to work in education. But the bigger issue is how to get talented and dedicated young people, who also have other options, to stay in education.

I teach fifth grade at a charter school in Boston. Many of my friends studied education, and almost all chose to work at charter schools or through Teach for America. There’s a simple reason for this. Teaching in a regular public school generally requires a master’s degree in education and certification tests. That means that you essentially have to be sure you want to teach. The time and money one would invest in a master’s program only makes sense if you’re committed to teaching for good.

So here’s the situation: Many young people with other employment options enter the world of education. We choose to work in the toughest neighborhoods, with underserved populations. We work long hours in high-stress environments, forgoing many basic amenities of other jobs (like the ability to get up and go to the bathroom, for example). We make personal connections with students and take our worries about them home with us along with papers to grade and lessons to prep. Then after two or three years, the vast majority of us leave the classroom.

One solution that’s been proposed for teacher retention is higher pay or bonuses. For money to actually make a difference in teacher quality and retention, salaries would have to be dramatically increased to the point where candidates who are getting pulled into finance and consulting jobs would instead opt for education. Personally, I certainly wouldn’t turn down extra money, but it also wouldn’t have a significant impact on my job satisfaction.

Many teachers aren’t motivated by money; otherwise, they wouldn’t have gone into education. In my senior year of college at an Ivy League school, when I was looking at job opportunities, I went to an info session for a major consulting firm. The jobs it was offering paid $100,000 a year, starting salary. I remember thinking that given a choice between time and money, I would rather have time.

So where is the innovative thinking about incentives for the rest of us, who are motivated by the social good of teaching and prefer time to money? A logical and meaningful first step to reward teachers would be to eliminate bureaucratic hurdles and cut down on paperwork, which prevents teachers from actually teaching. Many high-performing charter schools, including where I’m employed, are already making great steps in this direction.

But even at the most cutting-edge institutions, the vacation system is a shibboleth. We have a bizarre way of getting rewarded with time. Teachers work crazy hours and then have several extremely long chunks of time off. I originally thought teaching would be perfect for me because I’d be able to pursue my other interests during the vacations and summertime. In practice though, I’ve found that I’m so sleep-deprived and emotionally drained by the time a vacation rolls around that I need to use the time simply to recover. Rather than more money, I’d much prefer a better work-life balance.

There are numerous possibilities for change. What if we traded the traditional summer break for shorter hours each day (and a dedicated focus on quality after-school programs for students) or more frequent one-week breaks? Breaking up the summer vacation would also alleviate pressure on working parents who struggle to find affordable childcare, while preventing students from “backsliding’’ on their studies during the summer.

More research needs to be done to figure out the impact of various changes on student achievement and teacher satisfaction. But it’s clear to me that education reform should take greater account of the work-life balance of teachers.