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Why I Plan to Stay in Teaching

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I groan each time another "Why I Quit Teaching" story pops up in my Facebook feed. These columns by teachers who decided to leave teaching are often confessional, occasionally self-righteous. Some manage, bizarrely, to be both.

The proliferation of these pieces indicts a system that drives out new, mid-career, and experienced teachers for all the wrong reasons. They invariably make good points. If we're going to keep talented teachers, our profession does need more respect, higher pay, and policies that don't seem like they were written by a troop of drunk monkeys on typewriters.

But these gloomy tales of departure also demand an equal and opposite reaction: stories by teachers who have chosen to stay. Those of us who plan to teach for the rest of our careers need to speak up about why we have made that choice.

So here are three reasons why I hope still to be teaching elementary school when I'm an old, tired, yet happy man. To all of you who see teaching as a lifelong craft, worthy of a lifetime's practice, I’d love to hear your own list.

1) The Kids

My students are really, really funny. Tina Fey once said that being the parent of a young child is like having a drunk midget in your house. On the loopier days, teaching can feel like having a whole classroom full of such amusing and eccentric personalities.

Seven-year-old Ruby would clasp her fists and pump her arms like an Olympic champion each time she shared her math solution at the board. Sweet little Griselda began wearing a skull-and-crossbones kerchief to school and insisted we call her "Pirate Queen."

My students' perceptions of the world continue to bemuse me. When I told the class I would wear my pajamas to school on Pajama Day, Ana responded with genuine incredulity: "Maestro, you don't have a pajama!" When I told everyone to come to the rug one morning, Cesar walked over to inquire, "When you said 'everybody,' did you mean me, too?"

The kids we teach can be hilarious. But they are also brave, brilliant, and wise. They come through the barriers in their lives—hunger, homelessness, racism—with courage and grace.

When Cesar won $10 in the 2nd grade writing contest, I asked him what he would buy with his winnings, expecting him to say he'd buy a few books or save up for a video game. Instead, he told me, “I'm going to give it to my mom, so she can buy some food for our family.”

When 9-year-old Heather was struggling with constant fear after the attacks of September 11, she told me, “I see angels everywhere I go, watching over me to make sure I'll be alright.”

Being a teacher can be grueling. But so is being a child who doesn't get enough to eat on weekends, or lives in a rundown motel after another eviction, or fears a stepfather's rage.

I don't see how we can demand less courage of ourselves than our students display on a daily basis.

2) The Work

Teaching has a way of bringing the entire world into the classroom. It reminds me that Hamlet was right when he told Horatio, "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

I get to observe children's first experience of irony when they snort with delight at Piggie and Elephant’s We Are in a Book! I get to watch them grapple with our nation's racial history for the first time when we read about the Civil Rights movement. I witness their delight when they figure out how numbers work, or conduct their first true science experiment.

Teaching is a thought profession. The content might seem simple—letter sounds and colors, shapes and math facts—but the interaction between a child's mind and these concepts is fascinating and complex.

Teachers bring a lot of heart to this work, but it demands an active mind, too: reflection, inquiry, and perpetual improvisation. When a 3rd grader still struggles to read, you have to peer into the way he perceives the world and the written word. When a 5-year-old waves her hand in the air and calls, "Teacher!," you can never predict with any certainty what she is about to tell you.

You’ll never get rich doing this work. But you’ll never be bored.

3) The Colleagues

I know plenty of talented people who have left teaching, and many of them have gone on to do amazing things that impact children's lives for the better. Starting a credit union for low-income families. Writing novels for inner-city teenagers that reflect their realities. Teaching future teachers.

But my heroes have always been the teachers who stayed, despite everything.

I think of my own AP Literature teacher Milton Burke, who studied Dante as deeply as any Ivy League professor, and proved every day that 17-year-olds are capable of grappling with complexity.

Or there was Martha McNair, 11th grade English, whose Southern salt-of-the-earth wisdom always grounded me. When I told her that after four years of college, I had learned about amazing works of art, literature, and far-flung cultures, yet had no practical skills, she said simply, "Yes, but you’ll never be bored. Some people are bored in 15 minutes."

I became a teacher because for three years in college, I worked at an elementary school with Bill VanSlyke, who was an amazing teacher, father, and all-around human being. His son and daughter attended the school where he taught 4th grade, and he dug up garlic on his farm in the summer.

Mr. V shared his frustrations at times—inane policies, demanding work for low pay—but he also shared how much he loved working with children, learning from his colleagues, and becoming a better teacher every year.

These teacher-heroes endured everyday indignities, like the retirement ceremony in my hometown where decades of service were rewarded with a $9.99 glass cube of unknown function, the sticker still attached. They inched up the salary scale by $500 a year while watching friends with similar education levels, talent, and experience vault to double and triple the typical teacher salary.

But they stayed. They gave the lie to the image of the burned out "veteran teacher," that slovenly-dressed and overweight old-timer with soup stains on his ill-fitting sweatshirt, making cynical comments in the dimly lit staff lounge.

The low pay, long hours, and absurd policies took their toll at times, but they couldn't touch these career teachers' kindness toward the students in their care. They remained delighted by the endless human variety of the young people who walked through the classroom door each year, and they treated every student with warmth, patience, and respect.

They laughed with genuine delight when a recent high school graduate, home from his first semester of college, showed up on their porch to solicit a little wisdom and talk about books. Their faces lit up when a former kindergarten student, now a parent herself, came up at a restaurant to shyly ask that eternal question, "Do you remember me?"

I see that same dauntless spirit today in the colleagues who teach down the hall, across the country, or across the ocean. My fellow 2nd grade teacher Andy, scrapping to make family finances work on two teacher salaries with three young children at home, who stays cheerful even when sleep-deprived and laughs easily. The young teacher I met in Shenzhen, China, who told me, "I just want to share my joy and my knowledge with my students."

I’m honored to be in their company. That camaraderie makes up for a lot.

So to anyone considering a career in this battered, beleaguered profession that makes all others possible, I have this simple advice: Do it.

It will be hard. There will be days when you stagger from the driveway to your couch and wonder how you will summon the strength to do it all again tomorrow.

You will marvel at how test companies, legislators, and even some administrators seem to despise children, and how little they understand of their worlds.

And yet.

You will also leave at the end of the day with the kind of “good ache” that comes from fulfilling work done well, not so different from standing back to admire a well-constructed stone fence built by your own hands.

You will laugh when you least expect it, startled from your usual thoughts by something a child in your class just said that you have never heard before.

You will work with amazing colleagues who are not only the kind of professional you strive to be, but the kind of human being you strive to become.

You will get better each year. And when your students come back to see you ten or twenty years later, when you marvel at the human beings they have become and dare to recognize that you played some small part in that becoming, you will know beyond any shadow of a doubt that you chose the right profession.

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