Authors Michael Beyer and Nallely Suárez Gass with copies of their book, Pencils Down, at Mr. Beyers home on Friday October 13, 2023 | Todd Bannor

According to a February 2022 Gallup poll, K-12 school staff suffer higher burnout rates (44%) than any other segment of the U.S. labor force. In addition, a 2022 National Education Association survey indicated that 55% of educators were considering leaving the profession earlier than planned, a figure nearly double the percentage of teachers who indicated the same in July 2020. What is causing this phenomenon? 

Michael Beyer has personal experience with this alarming trend — and he not only has suggestions for improving the education sector, but he also offers educators an essential guide for transitioning out of it. Beyer, a former Chicago Public Schools principal with more than 20 years as an educator, has co-written a book with Nallely Suarez Gass, a career coach and former corporate executive, titled Pencils Down: Career Journeys of Educators Who Left the Profession and What We Can Learn From the Crises in Education. The co-authors have children in Oak Park schools.

Beyer left the education sector in 2018, after transforming a chronically underperforming school on Chicago’s southwest side and co-leading a complex and controversial merger between Ogden International School in the affluent Gold Coast neighborhood and Jenner Academy of the Arts in the former Cabrini-Green area. Separated by only a mile, the two schools were worlds apart. Ogden had reached a point of overcrowding while Jenner was severely underused and under-resourced. Beyer, principal at Ogden, and Robert Croston, principal at Jenner, believed merging the schools offered a rational and equitable solution. However, the move was not embraced by the entirety of parents of either school, many of whom vocally expressed their displeasure to Chicago Public Schools administrators. Beyer was eventually terminated by CPS for murky reasons, and the attendant media exposure, while largely supportive of Beyer, was devastating. 

Today, five years later, Beyer appreciates this painful chapter for forcing him out of a position that he had found increasingly untenable, with 12-hour workdays, including weekends, and no-win clashes with demanding parents and district administrators. As part of his “recovery process,” he elicited the help of a career coach, Suarez Gass, and together they realized that they needed to write a book to help educators, as well as other burned-out employees, make transitions in their lives.

Rather than serving as a strictly technical manual for job seekers, the book includes interviews with several former educators — many of which were very emotional.

“We quickly realized that we needed to honor the stories they wanted to share — and to express why they left teaching and the guilt they felt about leaving their students even when they were deeply unhappy. We gave them the space to acknowledge the hard spot they were in,” said Suarez Gass. 

“We also realized that we needed to include sections on burnout and wellbeing,” Beyer said. 

He maintains that one of the reasons for teacher burnout is society’s expectation that schools fix every social problem.

“We expect schools to solve social epidemics like gangs, homelessness, and, more recently, suicide. Every time there is a problem in society, we blame the schools. Schools are the pillars of a community but we can’t expect them to solve all of the problems in the communities surrounding the schools,” he said. 

According to Beyer, one of the best ways to fix schools is to focus on the well-being of their teachers, something that education does not do as well as the business world. There is no “Great Places to Work” survey for schools like there is for corporations, which work very hard to be included because it helps them attract and retain employees. 

“I asked superintendents and principals across the country what they do for wellness, and everyone would rattle off a list of programs and initiatives, but they were all for students — they had no plan to support faculty and staff wellness,” Beyer said. 

“Teachers and principals need relief now. While funding is definitely a cause and driver of much of the problems in education, a focused program on wellness can be implemented in a matter of months. You can’t have healthy kids if they’re surrounded by burned-out, stressed-out teachers.”

Perhaps the core of the book is the section on career advice, which, while geared to teachers, is applicable to anyone. Both Beyer and Suarez Gass believe teachers undervalue themselves and don’t understand how their skill sets are transferrable to other careers. 

“In our interviews, it became apparent that teachers had a hard time assessing their skills and realizing how they could use them in other realms. For example, teachers have the ability to command a room, organize a curriculum, and engage and bring along people at disparate levels. They are good communicators and have the ability to build consensus with students, parents and local school boards. These are valuable skills in the corporate world,” said Suarez Gass. 

Suarez Gass also commends teachers for the ability to multi-task and manage through crisis. 

“When some kid pukes on the way to the pumpkin patch, you see teachers immediately jump into action and handle the sick kid while also managing the rest of the class,” she said, laughing.

Suarez Gass also mentions the importance of networking and activating your friends, something that helped Beyer garner job interviews and offers in the first two weeks of his job search. 

“If the Avengers can come together to save the world, your friends can do the same to help you in your job search,” said Suarez Gass. 

Suarez Gass left a successful career in the corporate world five years ago to start her own coaching business. In addition, she has a podcast, Corporate Cafecito, focusing on career development and highlighting successful Latines. 

With Suarez Gass’s professional help, Beyer is now working with a global management consulting firm that works with Fortune 500 companies. 

Pencils Down (Erie Publishing) is available on Amazon. The forthcoming audio book will be read by Malcolm Wright, grandson of famed author Richard Wright (Native Son). 

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