I hear my daughter singing. The door to her room is closed, but I can hear Darla behind it trying out a Gershwin classic, “Someone to Watch Over Me.” She has a lovely voice, full of vibrato, as if she were pulsing with adult emotions.
This is all a bit surprising. Darla, who’s in 9th grade, had belonged to a chorus since 4th grade, but almost indifferently—the way most people belong to a book club. Then the high school hired a new chorus teacher, a young woman recently out of college, who noticed Darla hidden among the altos and praised her voice and encouraged her to refine it.
Now Darla hangs out in the chorus room during lunch and after school, and when she comes home, she practices her songs without having to be reminded. At dinner, she doesn’t talk about earth science or English unless it’s to complain that there’s a test or a lot of homework, but she’s always chattering about the song selections for upcoming concerts and who’s up for a solo and what Ms. Ruiz, the chorus teacher, said that day.
It’s nice that Darla has found at least one thing at school to get excited about. It must be nice for the chorus teacher, too. Without Darla and some other kids like her, school would probably be unbearable for Ms. Ruiz, a tedious hell of discipline problems and cafeteria duty and paperwork.
In her 1964 novel, Up the Down Staircase, Bel Kaufman perfectly captures the small victories on which a teacher’s sanity can depend. The narrator, first-year teacher Sylvia Barrett, writes, “Whenever I feel too frustrated to go on, I find an unexpected compensation: a girl whose face lights up when she enters the room; a boy who begins making sense out of words on a printed page; or a class that groans in dismay when the end-of-period bell rings.”
These fall under the heading of “intrinsic rewards of teaching.” Intrinsic rewards are necessary because teaching has so few extrinsic ones—you know, like money or status.
The lack of extrinsic rewards has caused the kind of people who used to go into teaching—called “high-aptitude women” by education researchers—generally to not go into it anymore. They can now enter better-paying, more “prestigious” professions, such as medicine, engineering, finance, and law. Teacher and author Ted Sizer was only half-joking when he remarked to Vivian Troen in the book Who’s Teaching Your Children?, “We could solve the teacher quality problem overnight. All we’d have to do is take away all opportunities for women to have other jobs.”
Or prevent teachers from leaving the jobs they already have. According to various sources, about 30 percent of new teachers quit after three years, and more than 45 percent quit after five.
Researchers have compiled a long list of reasons why teachers say they quit. Many cite low salaries, but even more complain about poor working conditions. Troen and Katherine Boles, her coauthor on Who’s Teaching, write that educators endure “the worst working conditions of any so-called professional.” Most, they add, “have no telephones, no fax machines, no personal computers, and limited access to copiers.”
The very buildings in which they work can be an obstacle to job satisfaction. Kaufman’s description of a fictional but typical urban high school, Calvin Coolidge, is as depressingly accurate today as it was when she wrote it more than 40 years ago: “cracked plaster, broken windows, splintered doors and carved-up desks, gloomy corridors, metal stairways, dingy cafeteria.” According to the National Education Association, an estimated 60 percent of schools in the United States require major repairs.
Another reason for leaving that teachers give is little to no administrative support. Almost two-thirds of former teachers in North Carolina indicated in a survey that a lack of administrative support was a factor in their departure.
Still other teachers quit out of fear for their safety. Esmé Raji Codell, who eventually left classroom teaching to become a school librarian and an author, taught in a neighborhood plagued by gangs and drug-related violence. As she recounts in Educating Esmé, a diary of her first year of teaching, she used to wonder, “Will I be shot by a student? So many of them have guns at home. Why will I be shot? For suspending, scolding, letting someone cut in line, for giving too much homework?”
‘Others sell stuff that's unnessary. They exploit them, scare them, pack them off to war. I teach them.’
Teachers also say they leave because they feel inadequately prepared for the pressures of teaching, because they’re inundated with extracurricular duties, because they’re assigned to the most-difficult-to-teach students or to courses outside their areas of expertise, because they have few opportunities for advancement, and because they suffer from loneliness and isolation.
Given all this, perhaps the question isn’t why so many teachers leave, but why any of them stay. And yet we do.
Last spring, a graduating senior at the state college where I teach gave me a chunk of crystal with a quote from Henry Adams etched on it: “A Teacher Affects Eternity. He Can Never Tell Where His Influence Stops.” She gave it to me mostly as a thank you, but also, she said, to remind me not to lose hope when my classes seem hopeless.
Good teaching is hard work. It may look easy, like any flake can do it, but not any flake can. You have to concentrate, and you have to practice, and perhaps you have to have an inborn talent—the soul of an artist.
As a young man, I had no intention of making a career of teaching. I wanted to be a writer, and teaching just seemed more sensible than stealing car stereos to support my twice-a-day writing habit. But a teacher is what I’ve primarily become, at least according to my income tax returns. On the line that asks my occupation, the accountant doesn’t put “writer-teacher”; he puts “teacher-writer.”
Most days, I can live with that.
Other people sell kids stuff that’s ugly or unnecessary or that may hurt them, either now or 20 years from now. Other people exploit them, scare them, pack them off to war. I don’t. I teach them.
Of course, I can’t always find the right key to unlock their curiosity about a subject. I search my key ring, my painfully acquired set of classroom skills, but the key may not be there, or if it is, I may not recognize it. When that happens, I brood and fret and feel like the world’s worst failure.
But when the key fits, oh, wow.
It doesn’t matter then that the classroom clock is broken or that there aren’t enough books to go around. It doesn’t matter that the state keeps changing the criteria for passing tests or that the department chair has the ethics of a cannibal. It doesn’t even matter that the pay is bad. All that matters is that a teacher is asking questions, and the students are asking questions back, and they’re learning to think for themselves and finding out that it’s not only important but also—just look at the sparkle in their eyes!—a joy.