That’s one of the takeaways from a new book, The First Five: A Love Letter to Teachers, written by Patrick Harris, a middle school English teacher near Detroit who is wrapping up his seventh year teaching. In the book, Harris captures his own journey into the classroom as a Black queer man and shares all the challenges, joys, and lessons learned along the way. At the end of every chapter, he interviews other teachers about their own reasons for staying in the classroom and their vision for the future of education.
“I didn’t want to be another expert voice in a crowded field,” Harris said in an interview. “I just wanted to be a storyteller and someone who’s bringing to life so many normal experiences that happen to teachers every day.”
Harris spoke to Education Week about why it’s important to view teaching as “human work” and how new teachers can be supported by their administrators. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Your book is called The First Five, referring to the time period when a lot of teachers do end up leaving the profession. Why do you think the first five years of being a teacher is so difficult, and how can school leaders better support new teachers?
The first five is such a crucial time for new teachers. I had a very turbulent first five years, where I worked in five different schools in five years—public, private, charter, international, [ranging from] very wealthy to beneath the poverty line. I had a time where I was like, “Am I going to be in this profession after five years?” Once I realized I was, I was like, man, I have to really talk about this experience because there’s so much I learned about myself and about teaching.
There are a lot of things that administrators or leaders can do to support new teachers. The first is that you have to see new teachers from a strengths-based perspective. You have to know that they are walking into the building with experiences and expertise that will be for the betterment of children. And that’s whether they’re coming fresh out of college or if it’s a career change—they have human experience that can be utilized to create an incredible educational experience for kids.
So much of the narrative that I heard when I was in my first five years was, “You don’t know enough yet.” Like, “You can’t challenge me yet. You gotta teach a couple more years first.” Or, “After your first five years, that’s when you can have some autonomy.” At the same time, [I was] being forced to teach from curricula that I didn’t feel were affirming and sometimes having to sneak my teacher identity in.
I was really struggling. So if administrators and leaders can see teachers from a strengths-based perspective, that can help teachers to really craft their own instructional identities in the classroom and help them really find a place to call home.
I think [coupled] with that is creating a culture of reflection. ... If we can create a culture in which teachers can come together to have vulnerable discussions about what they’ve been experiencing, to reflect, then we can create more shared decisionmaking, so teachers can have a voice and a seat at the table. If we know anything about new teachers—especially younger teachers, Gen Z—it’s that they don’t play by the rules. Younger teachers generally want a seat at the table, they want to make sure that things are fair and equitable.
The last thing I would say is we have to see teaching as human work. That’s the heart of the book: seeing teaching and teachers as human. Yes, we’re teaching the students in front of us, but we come in with a particular experience in schools in this country that we either replicate or we try to disrupt. We gotta have conversations with one another about our human experiences so that we know who’s teaching next door. How can we really build real relationships with one another so that we have a better understanding of why we make the types of decisions that we make as professionals?
You write, “We cannot fully recognize and honor the humanity of our students while silencing and devaluing teachers’ stories.” Why is it so important for teachers’ stories to be heard, and do you think our culture does a good job of listening?
They listen when they want. When it’s convenient for the world, they listen. They listened in 2020, when it was all over the news that teachers were heroes. And then when the country decided that teachers were the reason why [schools] couldn’t open back up soon enough, then we were lazy. We were vilified in the media because we were an inconvenience. I would add that there are certain types of teacher stories that get praise in the media—like teachers who rap with the kids, these super big, viral moments. Or the teacher sacrifice of some kind—a teacher stayed after [school], or she is working several jobs.
[Telling all kinds of teacher stories] makes room for teachers to find their own identity in the classroom. They don’t have to play to a particular trope to be validated in this profession. Because teaching is so high stakes all the time, with test scores and so much pressure. But when you see teaching as human work, and you are allowing all stories to be told, it gives us a bit of fresh air.
It reminds me of the reason why “Teacher Twitter” is so prevalent among so many educators. So many of us are looking for the community that affirms our experiences. Ensuring that all teachers’ stories can be told gives me a sense of camaraderie; it allows me to have a sense of community in a profession that requires so much of your soul. The more that teachers can be vulnerable and the more that we can feel safe to be our most human selves in this work, I think the more teachers will be likely to stay.
At one point in the book, you write that you didn’t think about your own values until you knew they were being violated. Between the pandemic, staffing shortages, and the political and cultural debates about what’s going on in the classroom, do you think that teachers elsewhere are coming to this realization? Is that contributing to teachers leaving the classroom?
Absolutely. No teacher walks into the profession thinking that it’s ever gonna be easy. But we do walk into the profession with a certain set of values based on our own experiences growing up, based on our coursework. We have an idea of what we think education should look like for our students. I don’t think, however, that we get a true opportunity to name them and to know what that looks like in practice. And I don’t think that we spend enough time as teachers, particularly new teachers, finding the schools that match our values.
That’s the reflection piece that I’m speaking to: What is a nonnegotiable for me to be my best teacher self? If I’m constantly fighting an uphill battle, then I’ll never be the teacher that my students need me to be every single day. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing right now. Teachers who are like, “I have tried to compromise on my values” or “I’ve tried to find a school that matches them, but it’s too overwhelming, and the pressure is too high.” And teachers are choosing themselves for once and finding a profession elsewhere, which is unfortunate.
The book is subtitled A Love Letter to Teachers. It’s clear throughout that you love teaching, despite all the challenges. What is your hope for the profession going forward?
I hope that this movement of creating a just, inclusive education continues to grow. And I know that that is only gonna happen from the ground up. I know that it’s also gonna happen from the inside out. I’m hoping that teachers continue to choose themselves, that they continue to say no to staying late and coming early. That they continue to set boundaries and continue to organize and put pressure on districts to pay us a living wage and a wage that really matches the degrees that we hold, the certificates that we hold , and the work that we put in.
It’s my hope that our education system continues to meet the needs [of our students] and continues to include more and continues to ask more questions [about how to] truly create the world that we want to see. We are the guide of America’s children. [President Joe] Biden talks about restoring the soul of America. You can’t do that without teachers.
I know that the reimagination of our education system will happen from the ground up. It’s gonna happen from teachers. And the more that we get to tell our stories, the more that we will tell our stories as raw and as real as we possibly can, [then] the more community that we can build and the more organizing that we can do to truly create the education system that we want to see.
It’s a reason why we absolutely love Abbott Elementary—because it’s truly telling the stories of teachers. And it’s giving us that, “Oh, I’m not in it alone” type of feeling that keeps us in the profession a little bit longer. Nobody joined the profession thinking that it was easy, but people will leave if they think it’s impossible.
A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 2022 edition of Education Week as The First 5 Years in the Classroom Are Tough. This Teacher Has Ideas to Lessen the Burden