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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Professional Development Opinion

Response: Teachers Stay Because ‘They Made A Choice To Serve’

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 16, 2015 13 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

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?

Today, 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.

I’ve previously written about why I stay at at Sacramento’s largest inner-city high school (one hundred percent of our students receive free breakfast and lunch). Today’s specific question focuses on “difficult-to-staff” schools. However, thanks to the leadership provided by our school’s principal, Ted Appel, and others, most teachers want to stay and many others want to join us.

Response From Renee Moore

Renee Moore, NBCT, teaches English at Mississippi Delta Community College. She is 2001 Mississippi Teacher of the Year; member of the Board of Directors of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) and of the Center for Teaching Quality Collaboratory; co-authored Teaching 2030 (2011) and blogs at TeachMoore:

I am one of those teachers. I chose to work in the “difficult to staff” high school in our district (there are only two here) because that’s the school my own children attended. It was the school directly in front of my house, 100% African American and 100% free and reduced lunch. Many of the teachers who choose to teach in the most challenging schools are from the communities served by those schools, or from similar communities. In that regard, we are like the majority of teachers in the United States, whom statistics show like to teach near where they live.

The primary reward for teaching near home is the satisfaction of directly impacting and improving the quality of life in our own communities and for our own families. As we used to say in the Bread Loaf Teachers Network, “We inhabit the consequences of our work.”

For over ten years, I conducted classroom action research on culturally engaged instruction (CEI). My focus was on teaching standard English to rural African American students; however, much of what I learned applied beyond language arts instruction. I found that the thousands of decisions I made every day as a teacher were informed both consciously and imperceptibly by my understanding of the community in which I worked and taught. What I wrote at the conclusion of that ten year project, is still true:

“Successful teaching of....African American students, as with all students, begins and grows from a respectful knowledge base of the student as individual and as part of a larger historical and social network. Teachers’ inability or unwillingness to acquire this base knowledge can often be traced to omissions in the teacher education programs. How our society trains teachers and how we develop classroom level curriculum has to be radically challenged to give teachers the professional confidence and flexibility to teach students, not just content. The art of teaching involves not only the dispensing of facts and terminology, but also the learning of cultures, needs, and perspectives which may not match our own.”

Response From Katy Farber

Katy Farber is a teacher, author, and founder of the blog Non-Toxic Kids. She is also the author of two books about education, Why Great Teachers Quit and How We Might Stop the Exodus and Change the World with Service Learning. Katy has written for various news, parenting, non-profit and educational publications, including MomsRising, Moms Clean Air Force, Educational Leadership, CNN’s School of Thought Blog, Problogger, Fox News opinion, and many others:

Even when facing increasing budget challenges, families in crisis, poor working conditions and high staff turnover--many teachers stay teaching in difficult conditions. Why do they do this?

As a teacher and writer, I know why teachers quit. I spent four years interviewing teachers across the country about their reasons for getting out of the profession, as 20-50% do in the first 5 years. I learned that a lack of administrative support; limited growth opportunities; a competitive, isolating and controlling standardized test culture; low pay and respect; and challenging parents are some of reasons why teachers are quitting in high numbers. I told their stories in my book “Why Great Teachers Quit and How We Might Stop the Exodus.” Thankfully, I also started to learn from master teachers the many reasons they stay despite persistant challenges. I shared their words of wisdom at the end of every chapter to inspire and encourage teachers.

When asked specifically about why teachers stay at challenging schools and communities, I turned to my teacher friends and colleagues. I asked a dear friend of mine who works in a low socio-economic status, rural school where most students are in crisis, most of the community is unemployed, and where teachers make by far the most money in the town. Here’s what he said, and his ideas were also echoed by the group of teachers who recently met with President Obama to discuss how to improve education, especially in urban, lower income, low performing, overcrowded schools.

Continuity. My friend has become part of the school and community fabric. Families trust him. He knows their culture, he knows their challenges, he understands where they come from. The community knows that he is fully committed to the learning, emotional, and social growth of his students. This is not always without strife, but when you have taught somewhere successfully for over 15 years, there is a sense of knowing, of value, and of trust between teachers and the community, even in challenging circumstances. He feels that moving schools would be a diservice to the community which is already facing such challenging times: food insecurity, lack of employment, violence and substance abuse--adding another transition to their lives seems unimaginable.

Community. Because of his long standing commitment to the community, through teaching everyday, but also chaperoning dances, running carwashes, scheduling field trips and community guest speakers, he is embedded in the local community. His fellow teachers are his family away from his family. Working together in a challenging setting binds them to each other and inspires them to do their best work. He is trusted by the town and by his long time colleagues. This is meaningful and because of it he makes more progress--with teachers and students alike.

Sense of purpose. At his school, there is very little entitlement and micro-management from parents. The families he works with are struggling to make ends meet. This teacher is trying to help them find a way out of rural poverty through a high quality education and increased opportunities. He feels a strong sense of purpose to work for equity and opportunity even in a system that often fights against him.

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan heard a lot about why teachers stay in hard to staff, challenging schools, and it caused quite a bit of a stir at the Washington Post blog. These teachers echoed the thoughts of my colleague. If you want to really support teachers in hard to staff, high poverty areas, you have to value their voice, their work, and support them in their growth. Any less dishonors their service and only seeks to repeat the conditions that exist.

In a response to the piece and reactions to it, Barry Barnet, the chief and executive operator of the Center for Teaching Quality, wrote about a what Duncan should do to honor teachers like Justin, who met with him:

“Duncan can point to the perspectives of teachers like Justin. Who know high-need schools inside and out. Who are invested in their profession. Who are committed to the best interests of the children they serve.”

This sounds just like my friend and fellow teacher. He knows how to improve his school from the inside out. He just needs the resources, time, and support to do so.

What do you think? Why do teachers stay in lower socioeconomic, hard to staff schools?

Response From Sharon Jacobs

Sharon Jacobs is Principal of Washington Montessori School, a Title I school in Greensboro, N.C. with an enrollment of more than 400 prekindergarten through fifth grade students. The school was the 2014 recipient of Vision in Action: The ASCD Whole Child Award thanks to their commitment to learners who are knowledgeable, emotionally and physically healthy, civically active, artistically engaged, prepared for economic self-sufficiency, and ready for the world beyond formal schooling:

The general public knows that teaching is hard and have heard various reasons why teachers leave. You can find plenty of data on the alarming rate of teachers leaving the profession. Some of the reasons are more concerning than the raw numbers.

On the flip side, have you ever engaged in a positive conversation with an educator and listened to what they said about why they remain in the profession? I conducted a small research project of my own. I placed a chart paper up during staff professional development and asked teachers these questions: 1) Why have you chosen to stay in education at Washington Montessori? 2) What connects you to the school community?

What my staff wrote clearly supports our vision and mission and confirmed my thoughts about the phrase, “Those who care, Teach.”

Their responses in brief:

  • Relationship with the students
  • Family/staff
  • Teachers love their students
  • Connections
  • Environment and Principal - warm, welcoming, and inviting
  • Relationships as a whole (staff, students, parents ,community) and family atmosphere
  • The opportunity to be trained
  • I enjoy the students and the Montessori styles
  • Family, staff, and we teach the children
  • I love working in an environment where I can make an impact and feel it’s appreciated
  • Montessori philosophy, keeping your children for more than one year with a chance to really establish relationships (reference to looping with your children in a multi-aged classroom)
  • I love the students, staff, parents, and community. I believe my purpose at this time is here!
  • Relationships; it is my calling for this time

This is a relationship-based profession. It’s about connections, relationships, being valued, having meaningful dialogue with colleagues, celebrating successes together, and making sense of our own academic pasts to fuel our present impact. Educators stay because they made a choice to serve. The conditions, boundaries, and challenges are driving forces behind why some of the greatest educators excel and defy odds every day.

The commitment to serving renders rewards that aren’t often immediate, nor the kind you put on a shelf and marvel at for years. It is the connections made and the vested interest in the children’s lives and community that keeps us coming back year after year. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, keep teaching. You’ll see the smiles, hugs, and gratitude of those who remember that one indelible thing you said as they come to register their own children in your school.

Why are you choosing to stay in education? I challenge you to type your response, print it, place inside your desk drawer or in a folder titled “Read Me First Everyday” and refer to it when you are faced with those challenging times ahead. It’s because so many push past the stressful day and care for our students and each other that we have success stories in education across the globe.

Response From Opal Davis Dawson

Opal Davis Dawson has been an educator in Kentucky for more than 25 years, including 17 years as principal of a public Montessori magnet school. As a faculty member with ASCD Professional Learning Services, Dawson has presented at conferences nationally and internationally and has provided professional development and coaching to teachers, teacher leaders, and administrators throughout the United States:

“It’s 2:00 a.m. and I’m awakened by an exciting thought. I quickly turn on my lamp, grab the notepad that I keep on the nightstand and feverishly write down my latest idea. I smile as I drift back to sleep for I know that in the morning I get to face the future.” This is an account that an experienced teacher shared as we discussed why, for the last 10 years, she chose to teach in a school that most teachers chose to leave. As our conversation continued she reflected on why she became a teacher and the impact that she wanted to have on our youth. She became emotional as she shared comments her friends made when they learned of the daily challenges she faced and how they encouraged her to transfer to an “easier” school. She simply shook her head and said, “They just don’t understand, it’s a calling.”

This teacher is one of many who are committed, connected, and certain that they are doing their life’s work. This group of teachers has become an integral part of the students’ lives not only at school, but at home. They have worked diligently to build relationships with their families that are built on integrity, trust and transparency. Each day this group of teachers understands that they are teaching the whole child and that their level of expectations should not change based on circumstances and challenges. They also understand at a deeper level the importance of their ability to model all of the characteristics they expect their students to embody. I find that what makes this group of teachers stay in difficult-to-staff schools is that they have a mirror and a window which allows them to see and be seen.

I’m certain that having a safe learning environment, support of the administration, professional learning, ongoing collaboration, staff resources, parental involvement, wrap around services for students and shared decision making may increase a teacher’s willingness to remain in a difficult-to-staff school. However, I believe that all of those things pale in comparison to the deeply rooted sense of dedicated service I see in classrooms across the country.

Thanks to Renee, Katy, Sharon and Opal for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. I’ll be including readers’ comments in Part Two.

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