The Student Newspaper of Poly Prep Country Day School

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The Student Newspaper of Poly Prep Country Day School

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The Student Newspaper of Poly Prep Country Day School

The Polygon

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The Great Departure: Examining the Complex Landscape of the Teaching Profession


The sun rose over Millennium Brooklyn High School on a gloomy day in 2016. Sophie Mode, a freshman at the time, trekked to third period, Quantitative Research. As she took her seat, Ms. Nubelo passed out the class’ next assignment: uncover the cause of death of Ray Johnson, a businessman who had mysteriously passed away. Over the next week, Mode spent hours scanning the internet, requesting specific autopsy reports, compiling sets of data, and assessing the falsifiability of different sources.

“At the end of the week, I realized this wasn’t just a random thing because maybe I’ll become a scientist one day,” Mode, now a junior at Vassar College, said. “This was a thing to be a functioning adult in society that most adults don’t have, and I just learned it. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a teacher.”

In the past decade, this declaration has become increasingly rare for students of Mode’s age. In fact, a 2019 survey conducted by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) states that less than 10 percent of Americans are pursuing teaching jobs, as opposed to the 22 percent pursuing them in 1975. And that trend carries into the teaching profession as well. More than 61 percent of school administrators report having difficulty hiring personnel, and job openings within schools have risen 66 percent since 2020, according to McKinsey & Company. Support staff and teachers in training are beginning to cover teaching jobs. So, why are so many teachers leaving their jobs, and why are so few students pursuing the profession?



An obvious issue: compensation. Riley Jones, a high school senior looking to pursue a career as an elementary school teacher, recently visited P.S. 063 Old South in Ozone Park, Queens, to help a fifth-grade teacher prepare her for the following school year classroom at the end of the summer. “The school was in a run down area a few blocks away from a homeless shelter,” Jones reported. “They had so few resources that they basically had to beg for materials.” Only 50 percent of districts reimburse teachers for classroom supplies, according to McKinsey & Company, so many teachers have to provide for themselves and their families as well as their dozens of students.

The National Education Association estimates that teachers in America get paid an average of $68,000 annually. According to Poly Prep’s administration and job postings, the average salary at Poly is $75,000 annually, about 10 percent higher than the national average. However, the average New Yorker must take home at least $100,000 annually to live comfortably in the city, according to a 2023 New York Times article.

Because many teachers feel they are not compensated fairly, they continue to leave their jobs. Between 2021 and 2022, teacher attrition rates rose by 17 percent, and the trend continues.

“I think the low salary is a huge problem,” Mode said. “I have memories of my elementary school teachers being bartenders after work because their teaching job couldn’t pay their bills. There’s also such a lack of support in the classroom with underfunded programs.” The teacher Mode spoke of is David Jansen, a third-grade teacher at PS8 The Emily Warren Roebling School in Brooklyn Heights. Jansen shared that he has had to work nights as a bartender and waiter across the city in Rockaway for the past twenty years to make a living wage.

This lack of support teachers feel is not limited to compensation. Students are also driving teachers out of their jobs. “I think we don’t talk enough about how emotionally taxing it must be to be a teacher,” Mode said. “If you’re an elementary school teacher, you’re responsible for the education of maybe thirty kids who are bringing their problems from home into the classroom. You have to adjust to each of their teaching styles, you have to make sure they’re eating enough and are healthy, happy, and safe while also meeting guidelines.” 

Former Poly history teacher Cody Pietro, who left their job in 2020, touched on the burnout teachers experience daily. “The emotional drain didn’t leave room for any other hobbies I wanted to do or time for my friends. It was all kind of gone by the end of the day.” McKinsey & Company shared that 75 percent of teachers feel they give more than they receive in the workplace. They put in long hours and spend much of their free time planning lessons and grading papers. 

Liz Pitofsky, founder of the Service Learning Project (SLP), a non-profit organization that works with hundreds of schools across the country to create service projects, has observed plenty of student-teacher relationships in different schools, seeing the different roles they take on in the classroom.“A teacher can’t be everything,” Pitofsky said. “A teacher can’t be a teacher, a social worker, and a substitute parent. We’re asking too much of teachers.”

Additionally, since the pandemic, there has been a decline in student attentiveness, making it more difficult for teachers to keep the classroom environment engaging. The New York Times reports that students lost about one-third of a school year’s worth of knowledge during the pandemic. “There was so much missed development during those years, and now there’s pressure to move on as if it didn’t even happen,” Pitofsky said. “I feel like teachers probably still want to be teachers, but it’s become so challenging to support students under these circumstances.”


Public vs. Private

In public schools, teachers report compensation as their reason for staying in the profession more than in private schools. However, McKinsey & Company reports that teachers in private schools report their colleagues, leadership, and career development as reasons to stay more than in public schools. Public schools may pay teachers more, but private schools provide more resources and opportunities, making it a difficult choice for teachers. “Private schools can hire more teachers or guidance counselors when needed, whereas public schools have such limited budgets that to bring in another person on the staff is almost impossible,” Pitofsky said. “Even if you know your students need more support, it’s not a possibility.”

I think in so many ways this work is thankless. Kids view this as a thing they need to do, and they don’t see the value in what they’re getting to experience. When you do that work day in and day out and aren’t appreciated or compensated appropriately, that’s a recipe for becoming disillusioned.

— Beth Eby

Then comes the issue of teaching to the test. In 2002, President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law out of concern that the American education system was not competitive with those of other nations. It required states to test students in reading and math from elementary through high school. This act led to the concept of the colloquial term “teaching to the test,” as curricula began to gear towards preparing students for standardized tests rather than focusing on critical thinking and analysis in the classroom. In The Shame of the Nation, writer Jonathan Kozol argues that teaching to the test can drain students’ and teachers’ passion and sense of meaning because the curriculum becomes so bare-boned. 

These standardized tests are often used in high school and college student applications. A recent National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) survey demonstrates the pressure these tests then exert over students, reporting that 75 percent of students fear that one small error in an application, such as a standardized test, could lessen their admission chances. 

“I think in so many ways this work is thankless,” Poly Prep History Teacher Beth Eby said. “Kids view this as a thing they need to do, and they don’t see the value in what they’re getting to experience. When you do that work day in and day out and aren’t appreciated or compensated appropriately, that’s a recipe for becoming disillusioned.” Eby, who previously taught at the University of Texas at Austin, described the stark difference in her interactions with students on the college level versus the high school level. In a collegiate environment, her interactions with students were often an extension of the course material—continuing a discussion from class, discussing current events, or asking questions about assignments. At the secondary school level, Eby finds that most interactions outside of class revolve around the students’ grades rather than their interest in the course material. 

“I think if there was less of the garbage attached to teaching I would’ve been interested in remaining,” Pietro said, referring to all these issues. “But there is all of that garbage attached to it, and it’s not a particularly upwardly mobile profession. You’re kind of stuck. If you want to continue teaching, you’re just gonna be at the same level your whole career. The only way up is out.” 

In fact, teachers often use the profession as a stepping stone for other opportunities, such as school leadership, curriculum design, or something else entirely. “I feel like you don’t see people who want to be a career teacher anymore,” Eby said. “I think that it’s partly because society continues to value our teachers less and less, so people leave for better opportunities outside of teaching.” In addition, many teachers use teaching to qualify for the United States Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. Their federal student loans are forgiven if they make 120 qualifying monthly payments while working in a non-profit or government agency. “I also know a lot of people teach until they’ve met those requirements and then they look elsewhere.”

Even Mode, who knew she wanted to be a teacher since that one Quantitative Research class, anticipates seeking a higher position. “In my dream world, I would run my own school,” Mode said. “So I’m planning to try to be a principal. You can technically be a principal without being a teacher, but it’s really not recommended.”

For Poly in particular, the administration states that approximately 10 percent of teachers left after the 2022-23 school year, based on numbers provided by Assistant Head of School Rebekah Sollitto. However, they are combatting this uptick in departures in several ways. New Dean of Faculty Andrea Del Valle mentors newly hired teachers. “Over the course of two-hour monthly lunch meetings, we want new teachers to connect with each other and prepare for things that come up during the school year,” Del Valle shared. She works with teachers to plan for assessments, form relationships, and prepare for events like family-teacher conferences and curriculum night.

Poly also hosts approximately five in-house professional development days each school year, where teachers discuss readings about specific topics in small groups. “There are a lot of ways that Poly wants to make sure teachers are getting professional development,” Del Valle said. “That way they’re not just moving along in the same role for years without considering what has changed in the field or what are the best practices right now in teaching about current and historical events.” 

This year, Poly has also revamped the faculty and staff council. The council has two faculty representatives from the Lower School, two from the Middle School, and three from the Upper School, as well as staff representatives. Faculty and staff can go directly to these representatives with any questions or concerns. The council then reports them directly to the Head of School and also has an observational seat on the board of trustees. “This way there’s some understanding of communication about what’s actually happening with faculty,” Del Valle said. “It’s communicated up to the top and then back from the top down.”

Even if teacher attrition remains an issue, the Poly administration continues to hire the highest quality teachers. They offer an application process by which, if a teacher is working on a degree, they can apply for funds to supplement their degree. “We invest so much time and effort and thought into the hiring process,” Assistant Head of School Michal Hershkovitz said. “Needless to say, we want to hire people who are going to want to be with us for the long term. And we want to hire people who will thrive here. Thriving teachers empower thriving students. You can’t have one without the other.” However, sometimes departure is out of the school’s control. “There’s always going to be an ebb and flow of people leaving,” said Head of Upper School Sarah Bates. “A lot of people leave because they have professional growth opportunities, and I think that speaks to the strength of the people here.”


A Broader Scale

On a broader scale, different schools nationwide are battling teacher attrition differently. In Missouri, 25 percent of districts have transitioned to four-day school weeks with longer hours. This transition has also become common in New Mexico, Colorado, Oregon, Idaho, South Dakota, and Texas. In other places, faculty find it helpful to receive as much transparency as possible regarding compensation. A 2021 NAIS survey revealed that 80 percent of teachers said their schools should give more pay transparency so that teachers are able to understand how their salary compares to similar positions at their schools and other schools.

Even more broadly, the role of teachers across different countries varies immensely. “I read this amazing book several years ago called The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way,” said Sollitto. “It was about three different countries—Poland, South Korea, and the United States. And it was a comparison about the way those countries treat teachers and education and fund education. Thinking about the way teachers in the U.S. are compensated and treated compared to other countries, it’s staggering.” In countries like Taiwan and China, the respect for the teaching profession is on par with that of careers like doctors and social workers. In countries like Switzerland and Germany, average annual teacher salaries exceed $100,000. There has even proven to be a positive correlation between respect for teachers and student achievement. 

Victoria Misrock-Stein, a current second-grade teacher at The Berkeley Carroll School, a private school in Brooklyn, has had her fair share of teaching positions worldwide. In her twenties, she moved to France to teach Kindergarten at Rencontres et Echanges Bilingual School. She and the other teachers often take the train four hours to Switzerland for ski trips with their three-year-old students. “France was so much more hands-off,” Misrock-Stein said. “I can’t imagine an American family sending their three-year-old on a school trip to another country to go skiing.”

Before Misrock-Stein settled down in Brooklyn with her now-17-year-old son Levi, she taught at an American school in Japan for children of ex-patriots. “In Japan, they were really clear about who they could accept,” she explained. “A lot of times we admit students who we don’t have the resources to serve. A child with dyslexia needs really hands-on instruction regularly, and a lot of schools can’t provide that. Instead of taking the family’s money and having both the teacher and child struggle, if a school couldn’t accommodate a student with learning differences, they were really upfront and they didn’t accept them.”

So, considering the many issues that come with teaching, why does anyone still want to be a teacher? During her Junior year of college, Emma Chun from Washington D.C. studied abroad in Rennes, France. “Within the first week of being in France, I experienced blatant instances of racism,” Chun said. She began to think back to a favorite teacher’s words during her school’s Asian Student Alliance Assembly the semester prior. “My math teacher offered her experience as an Asian American teacher who struggled to choose between teaching her two beloved subjects: French and Math. As I remembered her own negative experiences in Europe, and the stereotypes she felt forced to conform to as an Asian American teacher, I finally felt unalone. Although my math teacher was 3,000 miles away her words stuck with me, providing the support and allyship I needed in order to conquer the rest of my time abroad.”

High School English Teacher Kori Lynn Rimay thinks back on her secondary school years, thinking more about the relationships she formed rather than the content she learned. “What I remember are the people—people like the fifth grade teacher who helped me during what I now realize was my first panic attack, the 10th grade English teacher who inspired me to pursue the subject in college, and the calculus teacher who encouraged me to become a teacher myself,” Lynn Rimay said. “Teachers have an enormous impact on the lives of students. We know this from our own experiences as students, whether those experiences were positive, negative, or something in between. When a teacher leaves, the community, and in particular, our students, are impacted in significant ways.”

After her lightbulb moment in ninth grade, Mode bounced between professions, considering urban planning and even political science. “I still think that the school is the place where you can make the most change,” Mode said. “I think about my own experience a lot and where it was good and where it was flawed, and I see what impacts my school had on me, whether they were good or bad. It just feels too important to not do. There are all these little moments that have such an impact on how students view the world, and they don’t even realize that it’s happening.”

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About the Contributor
Eleanor Brown
Eleanor Brown is the current Features Editor for the Polygon. She began writing articles since her sophomore year, and served as the Features Editor as a junior. Her passion for journalism often leans creative, as she particularly enjoys profile writing and, of course, co-writing the Devil’s Advocate, the school advice column. In addition to her time on the Polygon, Eleanor co-founded The Poly Record, Poly’s literary magazine and co-leads Women’s Affinity. Outside of school, she enjoys tutoring and playing piano, sitting on Ticketmaster presale lines, and making lists upon lists of restaurants in her Notes app.

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