Alarmed by the high turnover of teachers in her daughter’s school, Shahrezad Samiuddin talks to three teachers to search for reasons.

Teachers seem to be leaving for other schools and other professions all the time. When my daughter’s class went through three different class teachers in the span of a term, I got worried and decided to conduct my own little survey. I talked to teachers and ex-teachers, about occasions when they felt like leaving the profession and why, if ever, they left the profession at all. Surprisingly no one said that it was because of rowdy or lazy students. As one former 3rd grade class teacher Ayesha put it, ‘Uninterested students are part of the job. You expect that there will be a few students who are not interested. But they don’t discourage you from doing your job. They become a challenge. And it is gratifying to be able to bring out the spark in a student who previously avoided a subject.’

It’s work, work and more work

Ayesha says she left teaching because she wanted to spend time with her children at home rather than marking homework, entering grades and adding up totals. ‘I went into teaching thinking that I would be back home with my children. Instead it turned out that even when I did get home with them, I was busy marking essays and Math worksheets.’

Bottom-line: The pay-check

Another former teacher Maria, who taught in a private school system says she is not a teacher anymore because it didn’t make sense to work long hours and bring work home for Rs.10,000/- a month. ‘That was not all. Between all the teaching, I also had to get the children to organise shows for the annual concert and look after them during the lunch break. I love teaching, but as I was contributing to our household budget, I had to look elsewhere to increase my pay-check and also to take a break from the workload.’ On the other hand Sarosh, a nursery level teacher feels that anybody who is looking for money should join some other profession. ‘I joined teaching because I wanted to make a difference in the lives of the students and satisfy my own passion for teaching.’

While pay is an important part of any job, another vital element is appreciation. No matter how much you pay them, a person is more likely to stick to a job if he feels appreciated at his workplace. The same is true for teaching as Sarosh, explains. ‘I am not being paid a lot, but the principal takes my opinion and suggestions on things related to my class. I also got an award for best teacher recently.’ All these have motivated Sarosh, but she does feel the burden of the workload. As Maria puts it ‘I think all teachers should have assistants. It could be somebody to help mark the simpler assignments, to enter the grades and to help prepare some of the lessons. It gets too much at times and I feel like there is no break. Getting involved in all these peripheral things takes the fun out of teaching.’

The career ceiling

Sarosh also feel that because she doesn’t want to be a principal, her options for career advancement are limited. “Where do I go from here? I enjoy teaching, so I don’t want to be a principal. If I keep teaching I know that my pay raise will be extremely slow. And my only chances of advancement are if I change careers. For now I am enjoying my job and getting appreciated for it. But sometimes I do think about where I am headed and I don’t see anything.’

Creativity flies out of the window

Ayesha remembers that when she first started teaching she would spend hours on the Internet looking up innovative ways of teaching things. ‘I gave up when I realized that there was no time to do all of that. A lot of the time it’s about how much the children have memorized and how well they do on tests. It was difficult to deviate and explore things from a different angle. You just had to stick to what was being taught and make sure the students could recite back the facts. It really took away any creativity that could have been brought to the class.’

Thrown into the deep end

Most people who join the profession end up having to teach students and learning everything themselves. That is not true for other professions. In other professions such as medicine and law, new entrants have the opportunity to observe and learn from experienced colleagues. In fact Sarosh says, that she was almost as scared of teaching in the beginning as children are on their first days of school. ‘Everybody talks about the joy and rewards of teaching. Few people talk about how overwhelming it can be.’

Demanding workload, lack of support and low pay – it’s no surprise that schools are facing problems keeping teachers. In fact it isn’t that they can’t attract teachers, it’s that they cannot retain them. Maria says that when she joined the school system she had very idealistic notions about how she would teach. The reality was very different.

Taking-off without support

She left looking for more lucrative options, but says that she might have considered staying if she had had support from other older teachers who were ideally teaching Urdu to Grade 1, just like her. ‘It would have been great if there was some forum where I could discuss and get advice on classroom issues. Instead I was expected to function independently. The students’ learning is important to the school, but my learning should also have been important. You don’t let new pilots take-off without support, so why should teachers?’
Sarosh believes that teaching has changed a lot over the years and old teachers should support new ones, because they will also learn new things from them. She also thinks that teachers should be working towards a common goal to further the passion for teaching and improve it.