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The Employment Game: How Teachers Struggle to Stay Alive

Updated on May 25, 2017
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He is a former journalist who has worked on various community and college publications.

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How the dire job market affects teaching jobs

Every year on the job is a good year. With the state of the economy and the precarious situation of public education in the country, the job market is not too kind to teachers these days.

Still, every year brings unwarranted changes. Some of the familiar faces I’ve come to recognize have vanished. They’ve either retired early, resigned, or were laid off. Even the ones who have replaced some of these veterans are not returning.

The profession is increasingly becoming a lonely occupation. And those who manage to make it to another school year are either feeling lucky to have a job or dreading the possibility that it will become difficult to do.

The employment game in my public school district – as well as in nearly every district in California – has become one of chances. One may wake up one day to discover they don’t have a place to teach, or they realize that they’ll be taking on more duties than ever before.

Why is this? The reasons are many; however, the current financial conditions in the state and political wrangling at the district, state, and federal level are often the main culprits.

However, other factors can be included: increasing workloads, bad leadership, shifting standards, and faltering status of educators in the community. These factors have not only made the job difficult; it has made it nearly unbearable. In many respects, it has turned teaching into a monumental task. This can weigh heavily on teachers, especially those with bills to pay and families to feed.

Various Ways to Lose Your Job

July 2012 was an unusual and disastrous month. The school district decided to lay off 10 teachers during the summer. This is not good practice, considering how close this was to the start of the new school year.

Ideally, lay-offs happen in late February or early March. This benefits teachers, administrators and the school board. The teachers can have time to find another teaching position for the next school year. And, the administrators and school board members can change their minds and rescind the lay-offs. This is nearly impossible when this happens a month before the first day of school. It may lead to classrooms without teachers or division of students being placed in various “working “teachers’ impacted rooms.

The teachers affected by the summer lay-offs were from programs that were drastically slashed or eliminated. This included position in Foreign Languages, Music, Social Studies, and Art. It came on the heels of huge lay-offs during regular school year. The group affected by the massive February/march lay-offs was part the adult school staff.

Essentially, the district was ready to reduce a majority of the staff for this center and eliminate most of its program, despite the successes they reportedly had in preparing students for the competitive job market in Southern California.

While lay-offs are bad, they aren’t the end. In many cases, the district will change its mind; especially in the months of August and September when they realize they don’t have enough teachers to cover the incoming student population.

More permanent is what can happen to teachers on probation. These are the new teachers to the district. They have been working for one or two years in the district or are teaching with an intern credential (they may need a few more units to complete their credentials).

Every March, a few of these teachers are let go. It doesn’t matter if they were good or bad; they are let go without any explanation. This method is known as non-election or non-rehiring. Although they will get the bad news in March, their contract for the year remains until the end of the regular school year.

Like those who were laid-off, there is a possibility that the school board can rescind the non-reelection. In many cases this is due to teacher shortages for the coming year. In a few rare cases, the board’s decision to rescind a probationary teacher has to do with clerical error (the appropriate papers or certificate was miraculously found! This happened to this writer during his second year of teaching).

Surprisingly, this process has happened to a majority of teachers. One veteran teacher confided that it happened to her several times.

“It’s normal to receive a pink slip or two during your career,” she said.

Still, it’s not a fun feeling. It forces you to dread late February to early March when it rolls around.

Not every teacher is forced out. Others will leave on their own accord. They discover that the stress level of balancing classroom discipline and standards is too difficult. Others feel that the pay is not enough. Also, there are a collective few who never fit in. On average, many first-time teachers quit after three or four years.

Finally, there are teachers who are justifiably fired. However, these particularly lousy teachers are few and far between. Also, for a school board to terminate a teacher’s contract over job performance there has to be compelling evidence of his or her incompetence.

Consequence of the Employment Game

Some teachers bounce from one district to another, never getting the chance to become tenured. Also, many of these teachers will not prosper from being placed appropriately in the district’s pay column despite the years they may have put in.

As another effect, teacher retention by districts becomes a major problem. A school or an entire school district’s teaching staff will change every two or three years. This is particularly true for districts that serve students from low-income neighborhood. As a result, some districts will have only a handful of teachers with 10 years of job experience or more.

For teachers, this means that the profession is unstable. Many find themselves perusing board meeting agendas or following state budget plans with anxiety. Others search for opportunities in other markets or occupations and get out of the employment games as soon as possible.

The consequences can also be found in the classroom. In some cases, a teaching position will go unfilled at the beginning of the year. As a result, long-term subs that may not have a grasp of the subject matter, let alone have leadership skills, are placed in charge. In other cases, several day-to-day substitute teachers are assigned to cover the class. The results are predictable: nothing is taught and the students end up controlling the class.

The remaining teachers will end up taking the brunt. They may have to teach outside their topics for a few periods. Or, they will see the student population in their class grow to near unmanageable levels. Luckily, state laws in several states have placed limits on the student count in a classroom. However, the laws have been challenged successfully in several districts or haven’t been strongly enforced.

Are there Solutions?

Currently, the financial troubles of the country don’t help anyone. The lack of funds forces district officials to play gymnastics with everything associated with education. This includes the hiring, firing and placement of teachers.

Still, the number one priority for these officials is to find the best way to educate students. The main tools at their disposals are the teachers. This means that the most qualified teachers need to be in the classroom doing their jobs and not worrying about their job status or working conditions.

District officials shouldn’t be the only one to realize this. State and federal politicians need to realize that an educated populous can help the country get out of its current condition. Again, teachers are at the forefront of making this possible.

Another important group that can help by simply realizing how valuable a teacher can be is the general public. Most of them will have had several teachers in their life that helped or inspired them to learn. Also, many of them will be sending their children to school, hoping that they will learn from teachers how to become productive members of society.

Times are tough, but the teaching profession doesn’t have to be that way. The current employment game occurring in districts around the country is simply a diversion from what really needs to happen in the classroom. And the only way this game will change is if everyone starts realizing that teachers are too valuable to be toyed with this this nerve-racking game.

© 2012 Dean Traylor

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