At many schools I’ve worked at or observed, math departments are structured counterproductively. The best teachers often teach the most advanced classes, while the newest teachers, or those most in need of support, teach the classes that struggling students are more likely to attend. As a result, the students most in need of excellent teaching can be least likely to get it.
Math departments may be structured this way for a variety of reasons. There is surely a correlation of some sort between teaching skill and mastery of mathematics, so the best teachers may just more often than novice teachers be well-equipped to teach advanced courses. It may also be the case that teachers prefer teaching advanced classes; as the students in advanced classes typically already want to be there, teachers of those classes can focus more on content instruction and less on classroom management. School leaders may want to keep their best teachers happy, and giving those teachers the advanced classes may be one way to do that.
I can understand why teachers might, if given the choice, decide to teach AP Calculus AB instead of an intervention class geared towards students who failed Algebra I. Especially given the workloads American society foists upon teachers, who never have enough hours in the day to do a fraction of what they’d ideally do for their students, teacher burnout is a real concern. While I know some great teachers who love teaching hard-to-reach students and have made doing so their life’s work, and while teaching advanced students also carries its challenges, working with the highest-need students is often emotionally exhausting and probably accelerates the burning-out process.
Several approaches could potentially help reduce the tension between pursuing the most equitable arrangement – in which the best teachers teach the students who need help most – and protecting teachers against burnout. One option would be to reduce the number of classes teachers of introductory or remedial courses would be required to teach. If nothing else, an extra free period would give these teachers more time to plan remediation and give students constructive feedback. Another option would be to ensure that an instructional aide is available to assist teachers in every lower-level course they teach. A third approach would be to require every teacher teaching an AP or honors course to teach a lower-level course as well. (None of these ideas is mutually exclusive, of course.)
Reducing teacher burnout and making our schools more equitable are big challenges that ultimately require substantially increased investments in public education, particularly in low-income areas, as well as an overhaul of what teacher workdays and support structures look like. We must push for those investments and overhauls, not to mention the larger, outside-of-school changes that are most important for ensuring equal opportunity for every student in this country. In the meantime, we should explore creative ways to simultaneously keep our best teachers invigorated and make sure they’re in front of our students in need.