Why Are Teachers Dissatisfied With Their Jobs?

It's not a simple matter of burnout. Kids who come to school hungry -- and parents who don't care -- also weigh heavily on educators.

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The fact that there's been a record decline in the percentage of teachers who say they are satisfied with their jobs is worrisome -- but perhaps not surprising. 

The new MetLife Survey of the American Teacher -- the result of telephone interviews with over a thousand teachers across the country -- found just 44 percent of them were satisfied with their jobs, compared with 59 percent in 2009. That 15-percentage slide represents a record drop and takes teacher satisfaction to its lowest level in 20 years. 

At the same time, the percentage of teachers who said they were likely to leave their jobs in the next five years jumped to 29 percent from 17 percent just two years ago.

The survey offers a profile of the American public school teacher, as well as how parents and students feel about educators and schools. 

The findings are also a reminder not to make assumptions about who are the unhappiest educators. It's not necessarily the burned-out veteran, or those working with the most challenging student populations. In reality, when comparing teachers with higher and lower job satisfaction, the survey shows no real difference in their years of experience, the grades they taught or the proportions of their students from low-income households. 

However, there were real differences in the day-to-day experiences of the less satisified and the more satisified teachers. The unhappier teachers were more likely to have had increase in average class sizes, and to have experienced layoffs in their district. They also had more students coming to class hungry, and had more families needing help with basic social services. There was also a marked gap among the teachers when it came to how much they believed they were viewed as professionals by their peers. Among the unsatisfied teachers that rate was 68 percent, compared with nearly 90 percent of the satisfied teachers. 

The survey also found a connection between the satisfied teachers and their relationships with their students' families. Happier teachers work at schools where they say there's a better plan in place for engaging parents in their children's learning. 

This year's results represent a significant setback on teacher satisfaction, which had been on a stable positive trend, said Dana Markow, vice president of youth and education research at Harris Interactive, which conducted the survey. Markow, who has been working on the survey since 1999, said she was most surprised by just how steep the drop actually was. She had expected a dip, but nothing as severe at what was reported. 

To be sure, the survey's results make it clear that public education has been significantly affected by the recession. More than a third of the surveyed teachers reported cuts to fine arts, language and/or physical education programs. For 60 percent of the teachers, the average class sizes had increased at their campus. 

There's another indicator of the effect of the economic downtown on teachers, said Markow. In 2006, just 8 percent of teachers said they didn't feel their jobs were secure. On this year's survey, that percentage had jumped more than four-fold to 34 percent.

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Emily Richmond is the public editor for the National Education Writers Association. She was previously the education reporter for the Las Vegas Sun.

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