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Professional Development Opinion

Response: Educators Stay Because They ‘Tap Into Moral Dimension Of Teaching’

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 18, 2015 14 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

This week’s question is a natural follow-up to last week’s topic (where we discussed why teachers leave high-needs schools):

Why do some teachers stay at difficult to staff schools? What are the rewards? What do these long term teachers learn about specific communities & learning that benefit their students?

In Part One, educators Renee Moore, Katy Farber, Sharon Jacobs, and Opal Davis Dawson share their responses. You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation Sharon and I had on this topic at my BAM! Radio Show.

Today, Kathleen Budge, William Parrett, Cathie E. West , Kevin L. O’Gorman, Jacqueline E. Jacobs and Pia Lindquist Wong contribute their commentaries. In addition, I include comments from readers.

Response From Kathleen Budge & William Parrett

Kathleen Budge is the coordinator of the Leadership Development Program at Boise State University. William Parrett is the director of the Center for School Improvement & Policy Studies (CSI&PS) and a professor of Education at Boise State University. Budge and Parrett are co-authors of Turning High-Poverty Schools into High Performing Schools (ASCD, 2012):

Teachers stay in “difficult to staff” schools because they are able to tap into the moral dimension of teaching nearly everyday. They tell us “We choose to teach here. We stay because we feel a sense of loyalty to our students and to ourselves--our own values. We are needed here. We like the people with whom we work. We can laugh with each other and we can laugh at ourselves. We are grateful for the support we get from our principal. Bottom line though, we like (love) our kids and we know we make a difference in their lives.”

These teachers do not think of themselves as heroes. As one teacher explained, “I really dislike injustice. When I look at my students, I see where adults have failed them. It comes back to my impetus for entering teaching... I hear this phrase a lot, ‘Well, that will never work because my kids can’t/won’t...’ That’s the death phrase. Instead of producing excuses about why our students “can’t,” we need to flip that and ask ‘why we can’t.”

As a nation, we should take heed. What teachers who stay in “difficult to staff” schools have to say illuminates not only the problem, but also the solution. Doris Santoro, a professor at Bowdoin College, argues that an examination of teacher attrition should not only focus on individuals’ skills and dispositions but also whether the system itself supports teachers to access the moral rewards of their practice.

“At this school, I knew I could make a bigger impact,” declared a teacher who works with refugee students. “I am not just a teacher; I am a mentor, a friend, a colleague, a role model, a counselor, a companion, and a team player. The joy of helping these kids and their families learn...is a great feeling - so is helping them find a home, clothing, and food.”

John Dewey wrote, "...if I were asked to name the most needed of all reforms in the spirit of education, I should say: ‘Cease conceiving of education as mere preparation for later life, and make it the full meaning of the present life.’” Teachers who choose to teach in “difficult to staff” schools live this conception. Only by responding to the reality of their students’ present lives do they gain the opportunity to prepare their students for the future. This is what teaching means to them. It’s why they stay.

Response From Cathie E. West

Cathie E. West is an experienced school administrator and education consultant. She is the author of several books including her most recent, The 6 Keys to Teacher Engagement: Unlocking the Doors to Top Teacher Performance (Routledge, 2013):

Challenging schools are fortunate when they attract teachers who embrace challenges. These service oriented educators are gold. But being a challenge seeker is not an attribute that keeps a teacher on the job if the work becomes unrewarding or too stressful. Teachers who stay at schools with demanding characteristics do so because of the culture, collaboration, and commitment they find there.

The Culture

Schools that retain teachers have strong cultures where potential barriers to student achievement, like high poverty, multiple languages, or alarming student learning deficits, are viewed as opportunities not obstacles. School leaders and teachers believe deeply that every student can succeed and that every teacher can produce successful students. This optimism propels the faculty to work hard, grow professionally, and find solutions for difficult problems.

The Collaboration

Teachers want to work in schools where the collaboration is authentic. This kind of collaboration offers teachers a supportive interpersonal environment, powerful conversations about teaching and learning, opportunities to learn high leverage teaching strategies, and the chance to work closely with colleagues. When there is authentic collaboration throughout a school, it improves everyone’s performance, reduces faculty stress, and puts a hold on the teachers who work there.

The Commitment

Tough schools draw students whose life experiences are tough. These students may be homeless, physically abused, mentally unstable, or have learning challenges associated with being multi-lingual, culturally different, or impoverished. Fortunately there are teachers who commit to serving in tough schools and to improving every student’s learning. These dedicated souls tune into diverse cultures, learn new languages, and align their teaching approach with students’ needs.

Key Points

When a school’s culture, collaboration, and commitment are solid, teachers do their best work, experience success, and feel professionally--and personally--rewarded. These outcomes will eventually bring stability to the most difficult to staff school.

Response From Kevin L. O’Gorman & Jacqueline E. Jacobs

Kevin L. O’Gorman is the Associate Superintendent for Instruction & Accountability in the Berkeley County School District, Moncks Corner, South Carolina. Jacqueline E. Jacobs is Student Support Services Coordinator at the Pan American School of Bahia in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil following a career in K-12 and Higher Education. They are authors of The Learning Leader: Reflecting, Modeling and Sharing:

When quality teachers have a sense of belonging and share the vision of a school, they are much more likely to stay, even in difficult to staff schools. A major reason successful teachers stay, and often spend their careers in difficult to staff schools, is strong leadership focused on students.

Strong leadership is evidenced when a common philosophy, core values, mission and vision exist, which drive all decisions made at the school. The philosophy of the school should lead to the core values which are the social/moral commonality for the school. The mission, clearly stated and understood, builds the foundation for the vision which sets high standards for teaching and learning that are attainable. There is a clear expectation that teachers are empowered to make instructional decisions and lead in a variety of ways.

The greatest reward stated by successful teachers in hard to staff schools is student learning. Seeing one’s students reach personal goals and achieve at a level not generally expected of similar students, provides a high level of satisfaction. In addition, sharing the reward of working with other professionals to improve the lives of each child in the school provides teachers with a sense of being a part of something that matters.

Following a major population shift bringing many high poverty students into a school, a teacher expressed concern about “how to teach these kids”. The principal responded, “Children do not choose the circumstances into which they are born, nor in which they live. We must teach each one.” Successful teachers, no matter where they teach, know and believe this. In difficult to staff schools that retain quality teachers - strong leadership ensures that everyone works together to meet the needs of each child because they share this belief and feel rewarded because they know they make a meaningful difference for their students.

Response From Pia Lindquist Wong

Pia Lindquist Wong, Ph.D., is the chair of the Department of Teaching Credentials at Sacramento State University. She has been involved in urban teacher preparation since 1990, in a range of urban contexts including the Bay Area, São Paulo, Brazil and Sacramento:

As a teacher educator, I have worked with some “difficult-to-staff” schools that resemble the stuff of news headlines - dysfunctionality, high turnover, ineffective teaching, cynical disregard for the children and families of these communities. However, I have more consistently worked with teachers whose experience starkly contrasts with the statistics presented in the mainstream media - they persist, they grow and they contribute, through their work as educators, to the revitalization of some of the most marginalized communities in our region. Frankly, I have experienced more of these kinds of teachers in “difficult-to-staff” schools than the others that are covered so frequently in the news.

In my experience, I have seen two types of teachers who stay in “difficult-to-staff” schools. The one type is the teacher who also grew up in low income and culturally, linguistically and racially diverse communities. This teacher is well aware that due to personal grit and healthy doses of luck, she had (random) opportunities to pursue higher education and professional pathways. She returns “home” so that she can do whatever possible - in her classroom, in her school, in the community, in the political arena - to make sure that students from her community have systematic access to opportunities due to deliberate adult policy-making, intervention, and decision-making, rather than random good luck. This teacher may or may not teach at a school with like-minded colleagues. But no matter, she will pursue her mission, independently or with others and if the overall conditions of the school as a place to work do not support this mission, she is rarely deterred for long. For many years, my institution has prepared teachers - a high proportion of which were low income, first generation college students of color - to go and do this work. When I write about this kind of teacher, specific graduates from our program easily come to mind.

I have also had the experience of working with teachers who are not from these kinds of communities, but they have made a conscious decision to establish deep teaching roots in schools serving these communities. These teachers do not share the lived experiences of their students or their families, but they have profound beliefs in equality of opportunity and they enter into this teaching experience with an open mind that is also free (mostly) of judgment. These teachers work in schools where there is a shared commitment to effective teaching such that students who are typically marginalized in our system have expanded opportunities and support. These are not perfect schools and they do not implement this commitment flawlessly, but nevertheless there is a sense of hope, efficacy and agency among these teachers that their school community has resources and assets and that, by building on these resources and assets, their teaching can advance a social justice and equity agenda.

In either case, my observations tell me the rewards are the similar:

  • Profound connections with the community that emerge from:

    • Productive relationships with parents and families that are responsive and supportive of individual teachers and/or the school.
    • A sense of respect from the families, such that the teacher becomes a trusted member of the community whose counsel is sought on matters beyond classroom issues.
    • Entrée into a culturally rich community whose traditions and resources are a source of personal, professional and often curricular enrichment.
  • A sense of professional accomplishment that stems from:

    • Students who respond to a genuine sense of caring and high expectations for performance.
    • Students who persist and even thrive against stunning odds due to the teacher’s attention and the support of a caring classroom and/or school community (as well as their own personal motivation and drive).
    • Supporting students to take seek out and take advantage of opportunities.

In terms of what these “long term” teachers learn that can be put to the benefit of their students, I think it boils down to this - these teachers, whose own political commitments steered them to these schools, also have cultural and sociological knowledge that integrates with their professional/technical and subject matter knowledge so that they are well-equipped to teach the students sitting in front of them. Teachers without these resources often try to teach an idealized notion of “student” or the students they wish they had or even the students they think they themselves were! These “long term” teachers are realists - they understand the challenges but they also understand how to overcome them and are willing to do the intellectual and emotional work necessary.

Responses From Readers

Jay F.:

I have been a teacher at the same school for 14 years now, my entire teaching career. This school is not the most prestigious in the community nor does it have the easiest kids from our community. I have suffered through bad principals and a lot of turnover through the years. So the question why do I stay is a very valid and applicable one for me, but it is a very simple answer, because these are my kids and this is my school. I feel a very strong sense of ownership in this building and the families I work with. I have developed a very strong relationship with many families and have had the pleasure of teaching multiple kids from the same family, this is their kids home and I am someone they can rely on to be here year after year. The feeling of being part of this community has a strong pull on me and even when the political side of education gets as bad as it can be, it still doesn’t outweigh the sense of belonging. I hope that I pass that feeling of belonging to the kids that I work with so that they feel as much a part of this school as I do.

Dr. Laura Morris:

Interestingly enough, I researched this for my dissertation in 2007.

They stay because of the children and the connectedness they feel with other teachers. They also possess extreme quantities of joy, passion and tenacity.

The teachers who choose to stay in high-challenge, urban schools are completely committed to their children. They believe that it is their duty to make sure the children in their schools learn. When they face obstacles, they dig in and move forward knowing that what they are doing is what is best for the children. Their networks inside and outside of schools are vast and reliable. They can get stuff, any stuff, all of the stuff they need to make a school day work for themselves and their children. These teachers never give up, they never give in and they always find the most joyous things in every single day they come to school.

As a Principal in one of these kind of schools, I feel proud every single day of my teachers who choose to be with our children.

Our teachers have the joy, the passion and the tenacity that it takes to teach in a high-challenge, urban school - our children will live better lives as a result.

Thanks to Kathleen, William, Cathie, Kevin, Jacqueline and Pia, and to readers, for their contributions!

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