The High School Journal 85.4 (2002) 16-22
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Rediscovering Ourselves and Why We Teach
J. Merrell Hansen
Brigham Young University
Brigham Young University
Those who teach know that it is difficult and demanding. Relentlessly, teaching requires much and seldom gives much back. Needless to say, many teachers find the challenges frustrating and complex. It is easy to understand that "teacher burnout" is as much a part of the profession as overhead projectors and textbooks.
Teaching the young has never been easy. But once upon a time, not so long ago in the history of our nation, teaching the young in schools was very much easier than it is today, largely because the school and its surrounding community were joined in common values and expectations and only a small percentage of boys and girls went beyond the elementary schools (Goodlad, 1990, p. 2).
Teaching is getting more difficult. The problems are more numerous, social changes have affected communities and neighborhoods, more expectations and requirements are imposed, and schools still remain the "imperfect panacea (Perkinson, 1968)." It is imperfect because it is expected to do so much. It is supposed to solve all of the problems in our society and nation. When it is unable to obtain those unrealistic expectations, individuals believe that the schools are failing. And if the schools are failing, the teachers unfairly bear the incredible majority of the responsibilities and in some regards, blame. All of these things wear even the most dedicated teacher down.
The social statistics (Center on National Education Policy, 1996) alarm us as we consider the challenges in our society and the burdens on the schools. Half of the people in prison are high school dropouts. One murder, on average, costs society $2.7 million. A robbery on average nets the robbers only $2,900 in cash value, but it costs society $14,900 in "quality of life" expenses. We have a generation where education should be more prized and yet it seems to be losing social value. A male high school dropout earned just two-thirds as much as a counterpart who graduated from high school but was not enrolled in college. Female dropouts earned only 59% as much as females who completed high school. High school dropouts are three times as likely to receive Aid to Families with [End Page 16] Dependent Children of public assistance as high school graduates with no college. Such facts and many similar statistics regularly placed at the educational doorstep. Educators continually are reminded of that heavy burden they carry and the social consequences that occur. There is a critical nature and importance in our mission. But this enormous responsibility only compounds the challenges that we face when the school door closes and the teacher confronts 32 children. Then the statistics become actual individuals and real persons.
The casualties in teaching tell us that many excellent individuals can become victims of the process. Teaching is difficult, even with the personal and professional rewards that we like to talk about. It is not surprising that the research (Meade, 1996) on "teacher burnout" could be interpreted as disheartening. These teachers are characterized as rigid, having blinders on, and seeing teaching to be done as "the way I do it." Burnout leads to teacher dropout. The annual dropout rate for teachers is 10 percent. In one study, one out of every 10 teachers had symptoms of burnout. This condition has been referred to as "battle fatigue."
Each story mirrors a common theme: early commitment to teaching—even a burning desire—followed by exposures to the real-life struggles of teaching, leading to disillusionment. All ending, almost inexorably, in burnout...Many good teachers come to us saying the skills they used 20 years ago don't work anymore. They have a hard time motivating, individualizing instruction. Learning styles and readiness levels are all completely different (Ibid., p. 41).
This is not what we anticipated or expected when we became teachers. The majority of teachers entered the profession, almost idealistic and certainly inspired. Making a difference was...