Breaking News
More () »

Veteran teachers: Why some stay in tough classrooms

Students at high-poverty schools pose challenges that can cause some teachers to leave. Many stay because they believe they can make a difference in students' lives.

CALIFORNIA, USA — It’s an old story: New teachers in California start their careers at schools with many low-income students, spend a few years, then transfer to more affluent communities. It’s a pattern that leaves these schools with fewer experienced teachers

At these schools, teachers confront towering obstacles before they can even get to instruction. Students living in poverty are more likely to come to school hungry and without enough sleep. They might not have permanent housing. Students living in those conditions are more likely to be behind grade level in reading and math and less likely to graduate high school and attend college. 

“It’s kind of impossible,” said Esther Honda, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at San Francisco’s Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School, where 60% of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. “But I think I have enough years under my belt to know how to deal with impossible.”

Many teachers at schools like Willie Brown leave in search of less stressful classrooms. The turnover draining high-poverty schools of experienced educators is both a cause and an effect of the perennial achievement gap in public education — students from low-income families score lower on standardized tests than their higher-income peers. Research shows that teacher quality plays the most critical role in a student’s success. But the working conditions at high-poverty schools can lead to an exodus of effective educators.

When teachers apply for jobs, most union contracts dictate that those with more experience have priority. Veteran teachers are therefore more likely to get hired for desirable positions, such as those at affluent schools. But that leaves the poorest students with more novice teachers, said Dan Goldhaber, the director at the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, which studied gaps in teacher quality.

“Districts that are hiring tend to favor more experience,” he said. “Experienced teachers tend to prefer students that are more advantaged.”

John Roach, executive director of the School Employers Association of California, noted that higher-poverty schools are typically in poorer areas. “It may not be an unsafe neighborhood, but it may have the reputation of being an unsafe neighborhood.”

The California Department of Education doesn’t collect data on teacher experience. To analyze employment patterns, CalMatters obtained teacher experience and turnover data from 35 school districts throughout the state and found that higher-poverty schools tend to have fewer veteran teachers, especially in large urban districts. 

Some research points to higher pay as one way to keep teachers at high-poverty schools. But prominent policymakers and teachers unions oppose that practice. When asked if teachers at high-poverty schools should be paid more, both the California Teachers Association and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond deflect to broader solutions such as increasing pay for all teachers and shrinking class sizes.

Working in a high-poverty school requires teachers to balance their own well-being with the monumental needs of their students. Teachers deal with an uncomfortable mix of passion for their vocation, an awareness of  their relative privilege and a resigned pragmatism about their impact within the constraints of a public school classroom.

Despite the trying conditions, some teachers choose to stay.

As students walk into Honda’s social studies class on the morning after the Presidents’ Day holiday, they stop at a table arrayed with snacks: single-serving packs of sugary cereal, cartons of milk and apples. About a third of the students grab a snack before taking their seats.

One boy, who retrieves an apple, wears an ankle monitor. Within two months, that student will be incarcerated. Honda doesn’t know what he’s been charged with, but she knows it has to be serious considering the high bar for juvenile detention in San Francisco. She said she worried about the student after hearing he was “getting into stuff and running around on the streets.”

“It’s good that he’s been located. It’s nice to know where he is,” she said. “The bad news is where he is.”

At Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School, named after the former mayor of San Francisco, two-thirds of students live in poverty. That means school might be their only reliable source of food. It could also mean they act out more in class, making it harder for Honda to teach them U.S. history. 

“I could go back to the suburbs and teach in my sleep,” Honda said. “It’s just so much easier.” 

Statewide, 47% of all students met or exceeded English language arts standards and 33% met or exceeded math standards in 2022, based on standardized test scores. But for eighth-graders at Willie Brown, those rates are 27% and 20%, respectively. 

Honda said many families relocate in the middle of the year in search of less expensive housing. But the students stay in the school district because their parents work in San Francisco. One of her students recently moved to Oakland, extending his morning commute. She said he’s been noticeably more tired, and his attendance has gotten more sporadic.

“He came in this morning, 45 minutes late,” she said. “I could tell he hadn’t brushed his teeth. It’s kind of heartbreaking.”

She said she empathizes with families, but it’s also “frustrating” and “exhausting” when students or their parents don’t prioritize education.

“It’s a bad feeling for me to know I’m trying harder than they are,” she said.

Yet after working elsewhere, she came back to Willie Brown during the start of the pandemic because she found the work rewarding. She said she’s rejected lucrative offers to work in schools serving more affluent communities, such as a private school in San Francisco — and that turning them down is easy.

“Privileged kids… can do well with all kinds of teachers,” she said. “My kids need me.”

Earlier in her career, Honda said she would feel disappointed watching her colleagues abandon this school in droves for schools in more affluent communities. She used to carpool with other teachers, and they would take turns complaining about their jobs. 

Today, she said she’s gotten better at separating work from her home life. Three times a week before school, she attends a high-intensity workout class. “It keeps me sane,” she said.

But she said it’s still hard when students lash out at her. She said that a student once flipped a desk and told her to “go back to China.”

“I’ve gotten better at realizing that it’s not about me,” Honda said.

She remembers that in 2015, more than half of the teachers left in the middle of the school year — discouraged that they spent more time dealing with misbehaving students than they did teaching. Moreover, Honda said administrators back then didn’t help those novice teachers deal with the disruptive behavior. Administrators are better at supporting teachers now, she said.

“It feels terrible,” Honda said. “It felt like I was on a sinking ship.”

Honda said she doesn’t resent teachers for seeking easier work environments — but it takes a critical toll.

“Students think, ‘I’m not gonna give any of the people here love because they’ll just leave’,” Honda said. “They feel this sense of ‘I’m not gonna get attached.’”

At San Francisco Unified, a 2008 property tax increase approved by voters allowed the district to pay teachers an extra $2,000 a year to work at one of 24 hard-to-staff schools, but Honda said it’s “nowhere near enough.” The bond measure expires in 2028. Honda estimates that the district needs to pay $15,000 to $20,000 more a year to improve teacher retention. Some research supports those numbers.

“People say all the time, thank you, you should get paid more,” Honda said. “That would help retain teachers, and it would make veteran teachers like me want to come here and stay.”

In her classroom, Honda seems to have eyes in the back of her head. She can tell when students aren’t staying on task or are watching YouTube on their Chromebooks.

“I just feel like you don’t understand what it means to be in a classroom today,” she said to one talkative student, while smiling and furrowing her brow.

Honda is adamant about maintaining high standards for her students.

“Boundaries show love. I’m convinced of that,” she said. “Giving out free A’s does not show love. That shows that you don’t care.”

At Coliseum Street Elementary in Los Angeles, Bridgette Donald Blue is a math intervention teacher, working with small groups of students who need extra help.  

On a rainy Monday morning in February, she walks across campus to a second grade classroom, peeks her head in and asks the teacher if she can grab six students. 

Donald Blue is starting the work week after an exciting weekend. She was celebrated as one of five California Teachers of the Year at a Los Angeles Clippers game. 

On her way back to the classroom, Donald Blue asks one second-grader about her weekend. The student speaks quietly with Donald Blue, who wraps one arm around her tiny shoulders and says she can come by her classroom if she needs “a little love.” Donald Blue later explains that the student’s father left over the weekend.

That same day, a student wants the class to count by six together. When Donald Blue tells him they have other things to work on, he stands up with his arms crossed then squats in the corner with tears streaming down his face. Donald Blue says his family had recently been kicked out of their apartment.

“Sometimes students have big problems that are well beyond their control,” she said. “They just want to be heard.”

The contrast between her own life and the experiences of her students weighs on her. During this winter’s heavy rainfall, Donald Blue noticed some of her students lacked umbrellas or warm clothes. She dug through her daughter’s closet for jackets she could give to her students. She also routinely gives out granola bars to students if she hears a stomach growling during class. 

Donald Blue also knows that some of her students are sleeping in cars. She said it can be hard to separate her work and home life knowing that her students are living in so much need. She said her students’ experiences influence her interactions with her own children.

“They’ll be complaining about the food at dinner,” she said. “And I’ll say to them, ‘You have no idea how lucky you have it.’”

Donald Blue admits she’s “totally affected” by her students’ experiences. But simply being in a classroom with them provides relief for both her and the students. She knows that school is the only stable place for many of her students, the only place where they’re guaranteed meals or the presence of caring adults.

Donald Blue also nurtures her students with high expectations. Her students sit around her at a horseshoe table. In these small groups, she’s able to ask questions like “How do you know 46 is smaller than 55?” and wait as students try to explain their thought processes. 

At most schools in Los Angeles Unified, more than 90% of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. According to data the district provided, both high-poverty and more affluent schools have similar teacher turnover rates, bucking national trends. Coliseum Street Elementary only had one teacher resign in the past five years. Donald Blue credits administrators who listen and colleagues who are always willing to help each other.

When asked what makes the job worth it, Donald Blue can’t provide a pithy line about the rewards of teaching. She responds with a mosaic of stories of past students and colleagues: A former student who was an English learner is now a pediatrician; another student who would’ve been held back in second grade without her help; one of her first bosses, a principal who stayed with her until 7 p.m. to help her plan a lesson.

Her most prominent memory: two former students whose fathers were shot to death. She said their deaths traumatized the entire class, but she made it clear she wouldn’t give up on the two boys.

“Yes, I was sad. Yes, I empathized with them,” Donald Blue said. “But at the same time, I knew the importance of making sure they could read on grade level and do math on grade level. I was determined.”

Donald Blue said one of her friends who teaches in Malibu gets showered with Christmas gifts from her students’ parents every year. Donald Blue typically receives coupons for In-N-Out or Yogurtland from her students.

“She’ll tease me and say ‘I got so many gifts’” and she’ll offer to share, Donald Blue said. “And I’ll say, ‘I’m good.’”

Dawn Payne has taught at Buttonwillow Union School, a single-school district 30 miles west of Bakersfield, for 24 years. She’s held a variety of roles at the rural school, from music teacher to science teacher. She currently spends most of her time running experiments with the students in the school’s science lab.

“Noisy’s not necessarily bad, especially in here,” Payne said.

Nearly all of Buttonwillow’s 322 students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. At Buttonwillow, about 20% of students met or exceeded English language arts standards in 2022, based on standardized test scores. Only about 11% of students met or exceeded math standards. 

Many families share homes and apartments. Some live in motels. Many parents work picking cotton, almonds or pistachios. Others work hourly jobs in Bakersfield. When students get sick at school, their parents often have to sacrifice wages to pick them up.

Buttonwillow Superintendent Stuart Packard said depression and anxiety have taken a heavy toll on the students. Buttonwillow contracts with a therapist who comes to campus once a week, seeing between five and 15 students each visit. Packard says it’s not enough.

“One of the biggest cries for help is the need for mental health support in rural areas,” Packard said. “If we can meet basic needs, then we can start worrying about reading and math.”

Payne is aware of the challenges that students and her colleagues face, and she considers herself lucky for being able to focus on the “fun stuff” of hands-on learning. She sees herself as part of the support system for classroom teachers. Student time in her lab is time for classroom teachers to prepare lesson plans or grade homework. 

For an activity with kindergarten students, she slices up Peeps, marshmallow treats shaped like chicks and covered in neon pink sugar. Students will hypothesize what will happen when they dunk the Peeps in water or heat them in the microwave. 

About half of the school’s 26 teachers have five or fewer years of experience. In the past five years, 10 teachers resigned. But there are three teachers, including Payne, with 20 or more years of experience. She said it’s the connection to the community that teachers enjoy at a small, rural school that keeps them at Buttonwillow.

While Payne enjoys watching students get excited about science, Payne looks forward to band the most. She’s a trained musician whose primary instrument is the French horn.

In the auditorium about an hour before the end of school, she cleans and repairs instruments to prepare for band practice. The instruments have been around for decades. One fifth grade student plays a saxophone his mother used to play as a Buttonwillow student.

Once practice starts, Payne sits behind a piano as her band members sit around her holding their trombones, trumpets and flutes. The young musicians warm up by playing  “Old MacDonald” in a series of harsh, staccato notes. Payne grins through the entire song.

Payne said band helps students stay interested in school even when things are tough at home — that students express themselves through music,  develop confidence through learning an instrument, and find a sense of community in band. She said the hardest part of her career was when the band program was downsized about 10 years ago, and she now gets only 30 minutes with her band students right before the end of school. This time is precious, so she gets frustrated if students don’t show up.

“Dude, don’t forget about band,” she says as she passes a student in the hallway who missed the previous day’s practice.  

But she knows attendance is a major problem for the school. For many low-income families in rural communities, just getting their children to school is a challenge.

Chronic absenteeism — defined as missing at least 10% of the days in a school year — soared  at Buttonwillow after remote learning ended. Last year, about half the students were chronically absent — far higher than the statewide chronic absenteeism rate of 30%.  

Payne said some working parents aren’t able to drive their kids to school, especially for an after-school recital. Other parents just don’t prioritize school.

“So many of them struggle with communicating with their parents and with transportation,” she said.

She has one seventh grade student who misses every other band rehearsal. 

“I asked him, “Are you coming to school tomorrow?’” Payne said. “And he just shrugged his shoulders and said ‘I don’t know.’”

Forming relationships with families becomes crucial to make sure students come to school. On a Tuesday evening in March, the school hosted a taco night followed by a town hall meeting for families. Packard grilled the meat. Payne and other teachers chopped onions and cilantro in the cafeteria after a full day of work. 

“Teachers here are fiercely loyal to their kids,” Dawn said. “At a school like this, it’s important to be able to form that kind of bond.”

WATCH RELATED: Local teachers training in ethnic studies for future required classes for students 

Before You Leave, Check This Out