Paul Forster | Credit: Courtesy

Last year, 22 faculty left my school; this year, it was 17. Talking with my fellow teachers, it seems the numbers in many schools across the district are similar. Long ago, when I began my career, positions in Santa Barbara Unified were so coveted that many would-be teachers were willing to substitute for years just to get a chance to work here. Now I am often asked, “Why is there such high teacher turnover?”

My answer is, “The perfect storm.”

Several factors have collided into creating conditions that drive teachers away from highly desirable Santa Barbara.

Some are obvious, such as the high cost of life here; large class size; the Varsity Blues scandal, which demonstrates the mania to place kids in elite colleges; and the endless waves of state, federal, district, and on-site testing teachers are forced to give, but there are many more.

The Dark Side of Tech

To start: cell phones, endless new technology, and AI. They are all double-edged swords, but the dark side of the sword means way more work for teachers. Some examples: Email and interactive grading sites allow students to advocate for themselves and parents to ask questions and get clarity on assignments. But after a long day planning lessons, grading work, and teaching, 20 emails from students and or parents all asking for clarity or help become a time-eating monster. Getting students to put down their cells or not play games on them is another time- and energy-eating monster.

As is learning new technology. Every year, one or two new programs come down the district pipeline and all the energy learning the last program goes out the window — along with however much the now-defunct program cost.

Students are little geniuses with technology, and no matter what firewalls the system puts up, they remain one step ahead. Schools tout all the programs to catch cheating and the use of AI, but it’s a losing battle.

If a teacher does catch the student cheating, following up takes vast amounts of time and energy. Turning in a cheating student opens the door to angry parents, a slew of emails and phone calls, and then after-school meetings that quickly turn into “Was it truly cheating? Or just smart research?”

And quite often, the teacher ends up getting blamed. I can’t count the incidents when I, or a fellow teacher, turned in a student for cheating and sooner or later found ourselves confronted with the question, “Why is your classroom an environment where students feel the need to cheat?” Or cornered with, “Your grading policies are not supportive of student learning and thus lead to cheating; you need to rework them.”

The Gleeful Disruptors

This same Alice in Wonderland logic now applies to student discipline. However the student is disrupting the learning environment and making it impossible for real teaching and learning to occur, the end result when asking for help is often, “If you managed your class and your instruction correctly, using System X, you would not have these problems in your room. Sign up for professional development in System X.”

In my long years of experience, System X was no better than System Y before it, which also completely failed to stop students disrupting the learning process. A fellow educator called the kids who are experts in depth-charging the learning environment the Gleeful Disruptors.

Back in pre-technology days, I managed the Gleeful Disruptors by simply letting them sit outside, where they could disrupt the plants and each other, but not the students who wanted to learn. Now that is impossible; you send a kid out, and immediately they are on their phone texting their pals — and quite often, the pals in other classes tell their own teacher they need to go to the bathroom and … voilà! They show up (with big grins) outside your room.

The school will earnestly tell you that they have “no cell phone” policies and cell hotels and bathroom pass policies, but by October, many teachers are too overwhelmed and worn down to enforce all these rules — and even if they do, the kids are always one step ahead: “I have to check my cell; Grandpa’s in the hospital,” or “I have a medical condition and must use the bathroom.” Sometimes this is actually true; many times, it’s not.

Discipline and rule-enforcing is draining and dispiriting; a day spent doing this is really just a day spent doing crowd control and babysitting. My fellow teachers and I got into the profession to teach, which, when it works, is a magic that gives an educator energy, purpose, and fulfillment — there is a reason I have put nearly 40 years into it.

In our current era, teachers are expected to do a massive amount of discipline. When I started my career, administrators did discipline and teachers taught. That is long gone. Now administrators won’t touch discipline issues until teachers have taken time-consuming steps such as calling home and parent meetings.

Which brings us to administrators. Once they have been out of the class too long, they lose touch with life in the trenches. A pre-COVID student is a far cry from a post-COVID student. Now substitute COVID with AI and any manner of tech and social media, and you get students (and parents) who are evolving into entirely new demographics every few years.

I offer a simple solution here. Once every three years, all administrators and district staff should teach one class of our most at-risk kids: Take role, make curriculum, create lessons, give grades, do discipline, post assignments, update the grade book, meet with parents — all the work teachers do.

What more goes into the perfect storm? Both the far left and the far right now see schools as their battleground, and when they succeed in getting their troops out onto the field — out go real thinking and learning and in comes indoctrination. In comes spying as well; some extreme parents will encourage their kids to spy, and then report on anything they consider offensive or a waste of time.

Sports Are Too Dominant

I am all for sports; what I am against is the fact that they drive school’s schedule, and this affects students’ ability to take certain classes or to even change classes. Again and again, I found myself with an entire team in my class, because it was the only class that fit with their sports schedule. Having an entire team in a class is not the ideal learning situation, to say the least. I also often found myself with some Gleeful Disrupters who I simply could not move to another class.

I am certain I have forgotten some of the currents that churn up the perfect storm that is blowing teachers out of Santa Barbara. But I haven’t forgotten some solutions that will help keep quality teachers here.

By teaching a full class every three years, all administrators will understand what their teachers are experiencing, relate far better with them, and become better and more supportive leaders.

Remove discipline from teachers’ already overly full plates so they can focus on teaching.

Remove the Gleeful Disrupters from the classroom so one kid cannot stop 30 others from learning.

Stop building the academic schedule around sports.

Don’t burn teachers out by constantly forcing them to administer tests and learn new tech platforms.

When teachers are overworked by duties that take away from their actual teaching and are endlessly vulnerable to accusations from students and parents, they become far more likely to go on autopilot and “fly under the radar.” This leads to losing the passion and creativity that called them to the profession in the first place. True teaching is an art that leads to a fulfilling career, but when teachers are forced into the roles of police, babysitters, and test proctors, they lose their passion and leave the profession. 


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