With Celebration and Support, Teachers Can Help Retain Each Other
While driving to work a year ago, I heard a surprising spot on the radio: an ad promoting teaching as a "next career." The narrator, addressing the listener directly, talked about how "you" once considered teaching but then moved in another direction, and now you are again thinking about how you might make a difference in someone else’s life. The theme of the ad was, "Make more: teach." The message—referring to something far more important and powerful than money—was both uplifting and intriguing.
As a career educator, the "more" is powerful. It’s in those moments when we realize with excitement that a student’s hard work has paid off, and he’s learned a new skill or concept. It's in watching students grow and learn. It’s what has kept me in education. I wonder how many have heard the ad and questioned whether education—and "making more"—is the right career move for them. Do listeners understand the power of the more we have in teaching?
As a new teacher struggling to find a job in the early 1990s, I heard predictions of a future teacher shortage. Now, the shortage is a reality in some parts of the country. This is often due to high rates of teacher turnover. Researchers at the Learning Policy Institute found that there’s a 50 percent higher turnover rate in Title I schools than those with higher-income families. According to the same report, schools with high percentages of students of color have a 70 percent turnover rate.
That kind of attrition has a significant impact on student learning and teacher satisfaction in schools. Many proposed solutions have come from outside of our classrooms. But as educators, there are steps we can take to help each other see the "more" we get from teaching—and encourage each other to stay.
For one, we can cherish the positive experiences of our work. While there are plenty of challenges in teaching, there are also moments of excitement, energy, joy, and laughter. Celebrating those moments can help us keep a more balanced perspective on our work. It’s worthwhile to take the time to savor the learning that happens in a class discussion, or appreciate the shy smile of an introverted student as his classmates compliment his presentation.
Another step we can take is to value and support others. It’s easy to get caught up in the daily tasks: the ungraded papers, the constant lesson plans, the materials and resources we need for tomorrow’s lab, the emails and phone calls, the meetings. But often it’s the smaller, positive moments that keep us energized. Recently, a colleague took the time to write me an email, explaining how her students had successfully used a new digital tool she learned from a professional-development session I had led. The warmth of her words was the perfect pick-me-up on a busy, stressful day. Those little actions may not seem like much, but they help strengthen relationships and build the feeling of community and partnership.
A couple of years ago, I enlisted the help of one of our secretaries to put notes of appreciation on the mailroom door. For about two weeks, she and I posted "things we love about working with you." Each day, a new thought appeared on the door, and by the end of the two weeks, it was fun to watch people pause to read the positive notes before going about their business. It was a simple gesture, but it still brightened the day.
It’s also important to let our students know what they mean to us. A few years ago, I commented to one of my classes that I loved working with them because I learned something new every day. A couple of students began to ask me, "So what did you learn today?" and they looked forward to my answer. Sometimes I learned something more about what we were reading, but often I learned something about my students. Our community became even stronger as we all continued to look for new learning daily.
Another time, a student asked, "Don’t you get tired of teaching the same thing every year?" She and her classmates seemed surprised when I told them that I love teaching because I get to work with students—with them—and that every year is different because my students are different. The moment startled me because I always assumed kids knew I was a teacher because I enjoyed working with them; in that moment, they taught me that they need to hear that they matter, that I value them and their learning. Showing and telling our students that we appreciate them is beneficial for all of us.
Finally, we need to practice good self-care. There are times when the work seems to take over all other aspects of our lives. Those are the moments when we need to pause, even though we may feel like we can’t afford to do so. Sometimes all we need is a walk or a little exercise to clear our heads, get some fresh air, and find a new perspective. At other times, taking a mental break from the work at hand can be important, whether we lose ourselves in a good book (one we’re reading for ourselves, and not for our students or for professional development) or go see a movie. Sometimes we need to take a weekend "off" and not grade papers or spend too much time planning lessons. Taking that kind of break can mean we return to our work on Monday feeling rested, energetic, and more focused.
The issue of teacher retention is a pervasive one, and it often involves policy makers, legislators, and others in positions of power outside education. Those of us inside schools on a daily basis can do something, too. Cherishing the positive moments in our days, appreciating and valuing each other, and practicing good self-care aren’t dramatic ideas that will change education broadly, but they are strategies that impact our attitude and the culture of our schools. They’ll remind us that we’re making "more" than just money in our jobs, and hopefully convince us to make our impact last.