It’s not uncommon for teachers to go on autopilot when they are asked why they choose to continue teaching. Why do you keep teaching? It’s a question teachers hear often, and they have honed their answers to perfection.
Those answers almost always begin with stories about students. Teachers describe the satisfaction of nurturing young minds, of preparing them for life, of exciting them about learning. Sometimes they mention a dedicated principal or a great teacher with whom they work. They might mention a few of their professional accomplishments and awards. They might describe the ways in which they engage with the rest of the education community.
Seldom would any teacher answer that they stay because it’s easy. It’s not! But for accomplished teachers, answering the question isn’t hard. The hard part is being asked the question—over and over again—by friends, family, and even strangers. Unfortunately, given the state of education, this question still needs to be asked. And we need to listen more closely to what teachers are saying.
Do we listen to doctors, writers, engineers, or professors when asked why they stay? Do we even ask them in the first place? Naturally people leave these jobs from time to time—to try out something new, choose a different career, take a break. But no one is surprised when someone stays in their profession. Teaching is different.
The idea that great teachers shouldn’t want to stay is a consequence of the strong negative public perception of education. Newspapers and their editorialists publish exposés about teachers who they claim don’t “add value” to their students. Schools introduce new curricula designed to foster understanding, but then judge teachers with tests that reward memorization.
Economists pore over data to determine whether teachers who know their subject are better than teachers who don’t, making teaching a banal social experiment rather than a prestigious profession. Policymakers obsess about how to rid our schools of the weakest teachers rather than how to ensure that we keep the strongest. The focus is incessantly and consistently on what’s not working in education—struggling students, failing schools, and (most especially) weak teachers—and never on what is working.
All this focus on what’s wrong was echoed in our recent national election, which featured the slogan “we’re losing at everything.” It was meant to be a dramatic new way to describe the state of our country, but for educators the slogan sounds all too familiar. It’s been the theme for public discussions about education for the past three decades. No wonder the public has soured on education and teachers, in particular. No wonder that teachers are routinely asked why they would stay in a failing system. And no wonder so many of them don’t - nearly 40 percent leave within the first five years!
But we are not losing at everything in education, and our great teachers are the evidence.
We have forgotten that it is our teachers who have the greatest effect—who ultimately shape our children and our society. Ask a group of successful professionals what things in their education made the largest difference in their lives, and invariably it turns out to be their teachers—teachers who inspired them to go into a field, who enticed them to love learning, who taught them to value knowledge, creativity, and curiosity. Of course, many things can improve in education, but they are unlikely to if we condemn everything, both good and bad.
It’s our mission to listen to teachers and highlight the many reasons they choose to stay in the classroom and build professional, lifelong careers. There are so many great schools, great teachers, and great communities of excellence both in New York City, and across the country. Let’s recognize what’s working. Let’s celebrate the profession. Let’s listen to why they stay.
The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.