Good reasons teachers stay in a challenging, unhappy profession

In 2003, I left my teaching position in the Chicago Public Schools.  After eight good but demanding years.  I was done.  Around that time, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, over 270,000 teachers did the same.  Over the last decade, about the same number of teachers left the profession each year NCES conducted its survey.

When I filled out my resignation forms and gave up my tenure, I thought: “What a relief!”

Or so I thought.

In 2006, after working for a national non-profit organization and in human resources, I returned.  I missed saying, “I’m a teacher.” I missed working with students, missed finding solutions to complex problems.  For me, that’s what teaching is about: problem solving and creativity.

Still, I find myself twenty years into this questioning how long I can continue to work under increasing demands.  And it’s not the teenagers I teach—they’re the best part.  They make me think. They make me laugh.  They sometimes make me angry or sad.  But everyone once in a while when I say, “That’s it!  I’m done with teaching!” the goodness in the universe sends me a sign that I’m exactly where I need to be.

However, I don't know if I can say I’m happy being a teacher.

My dream now is to be a writer who makes a living from writing.  I envision being happy doing that.  When I fall asleep at night, sometimes on the couch watching DVR’d TV at 9:00 p.m., I’m exhausted.  But I wake up the next day ready to teach again.

I laugh a lot at work.  But, no, I’m not happy being a teacher.

Teaching is about giving, not taking.

Recently, someone told me, “Hey, Ray.  You must get really sleepy sitting at your desk all day.”  I bit my tongue to keep the peace.  “No,” I said, “that’s not what I do.”

In Why Didn’t I Learn This in College, Paula Rutherford outlines the skills students need for the 21st century.  Gone are the days when teachers assigned ordinary grammar exercises and vocabulary words to define.  Rutherford cites how, in addition to reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, good teachers help students learn new ways of thinking:

Analytical Thinking: distinguish major and minor points, ground predictions in info, compare and contrast fairly and thoughtfully

Collaborative Thinking: be empathic, understand social context and when to lead and when to follow

Conceptual Thinking: examine facts, seek patterns to form conclusions, transfer understanding across time and situations

Creative Thinking: be open minded, innovative, a responsible risk taker

Critical Thinking: examine info reasonably then decide what to believe, communicate, or do

Introspective Thinking: self-assess and self-adjust, recognize emotions and bias

Metacognitive Thinking: set goals, know which skills to use when, assess prior results and products

Systems Thinking: understand, improve, and design relationships between parts and whole

Ineffective teachers, on the other hand, focus on their needs more than their students'.  Their approach to education is grounded in what they learned, as they say, "when went to school."  This type of thinking damages students' academic development and emotional well-being.

A couple of weeks ago, through a reading assignment my students had, I learned that good teachers probably aren’t supposed to be happy.  The editorial my students read discussed how “Leading a happy life is associated with being a ‘taker’ while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a ‘giver.’”

That’s it!  Good teachers who give up lots of time, emotion, energy, and so much more, are not going to be happy.

But—good teachers will fall asleep and wake up knowing that what they (we) do is meaningful.

No matter at which school I’ve taught, I’ve never had enough time to do everything teachers must or should do.  But I have found time to build strong professional relationships with colleagues in the Chicago Public Schools—with lots of good teachers.  Professional relationships prove to be the most essential part of our jobs if we intend to stick around.

As we fulfill our commitment to our students, however, the intellectual and emotional drain can make us feel like we’re not fulfilling our commitments to our loved ones.  Sarah Baranoff, a high-school English teacher with about ten years of experience, says, “It's especially difficult when one's emotional reserves are drained because there's not enough time for us to be full people with families and hobbies outside of our jobs.”

When my son was about 9 years old, he said to me one day as I sat at the kitchen table on the computer: “You’re always working.”  My heart broke.

But then I thought, and I told him, “You know what, m’ijo?  You have what you have because I do what I do.”

And my kids have it good.  One has voice lessons, the other flamenco classes.  They have their own bedrooms, spring break at Mexican resorts.  They also have responsibilities and limits at home because I know what not having these does to kids and teens.  So I’ve learned to talk with my kids about my work and my dreams.

During an evening walk this summer, my son asked me, “And how is the novel writing going?”  I told him about my current plot struggle and how I dream of writing all day.

He said, “I thought you said your dream was to be a dad and a teacher?”

“It was,” I responded.  “It is.  But we can have lots of dreams.”

I’ve learned to be more conscious of the time I spend with my family and my parents.  I also started to talk more about the good things in teaching so my children and parents continue to see value in what I do and in the time and energy it takes from me.

I accept without resentment anymore: If teachers don’t give of themselves, we won’t be good teachers.

Teaching is about intellectual challenge

So much of our world has changed and so much of our educational system hasn’t.  That's not the fault of teachers.  The challenge for good teachers becomes figuring out how to make learning a valuable experience that will help students in life—academically and socially and culturally and emotionally.  These are newer demands on teachers—along with all the paper work.  Teachers, too often, figure out how to do this by themselves.

Erin Neidt, a high-school science teacher and former science researcher with over six years of classroom experience, explains the flood of questions that run through her teacher mind within only a few minutes while she’s simultaneously interacting with students:

  • Are my students learning?
  • How well are they learning?
  • How can I tell?
  • Do my assessments actually represent their learning?
  •  Are they having fun?
  •  How do I know?
  •  Are they challenging each other?
  •  How do I get them "out of their shells?"
  •  Why does that student seem so sad today?
  •  Why are only three people raising their hands?
  •  Am I explaining this in a way to help them understand?
  •  Did I remember to enter my attendance?
  •  Did I collect the homework from the students in the last period?
  •  Did I already say that to this group of students?

Neidt says that it takes more than being an “expert” in the subjects we teach.  Good teachers, she emphasizes, must figure out how to connect with 140 students, plus interact with students we previously taught.  “That is a lot to consider,” Neidt adds.  “And again, we are considering this ALL the time.”

Research says our brains were not built to multitask.  Yet good teachers prove scientific research wrong in every class, every day.

Teaching is about remembering what motivates us

Tim Toner, a librarian with twenty years of experience, talks about the constant contradiction teachers face: “Teachers prepare students for the world we live in now, not the world they will live in.”

Nothing in teaching is constant: not the students, not their energy level, not our effectiveness, not our ability to engage, not the information or interpretations we help students access.  But good teachers take on the challenge of envisioning a future for students that they themselves often times cannot see.

Toner says this is the intellectual challenge that ironically prevents burnout.  The challenge simultaneously drains us and motivates us.

My students and I learned about motivation from a visual lecture Toner helped me find.  The researcher and author of Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, says people are motivated by three factors: the first is autonomy.

It should be of no surprise, then, why teachers speak up against mandates and over-testing and questionable policies.  Good teachers want to find their own solutions to the problems that affect the students in front of them instead of simply accepting what someone in an office far from the every day struggles of our classrooms said.

This does not mean teachers should act independently without oversight.

It means good teachers want opportunities to dedicate their intellectual and emotional energy so students overcome the complexities that obstruct their learning.  This is what good teachers give.

"Wanting to do a really good job and not having enough time is the hardest thing," says gender studies, social studies, and drama teacher Lisa Ehrlich-Menard, a teacher in her twelfth year.  "I'm not looking for perfection," she adds.  "Part of it involves being there for my students and creating a safe space for them. That means I don't always shut my door so that I can get my work done," Ehrlich-Menard recognizes.

Social emotional support remains an essential element of her identity as a teacher.  But when she sees her passion for supporting students devalued with the district's "lip service because this doesn't show up on a test," Ehrlich-Menard wonders if she needs to find another career.  Perhaps, she contemplates, as a social worker.

To succeed these days, teachers need support.  Natalie Garfield, a high-school English teacher with about fifteen years of experience, took on a new teacher leadership role this year overseeing curriculum.  Providing support for teachers is sometimes harder than supporting students, she’s found.

Garfield explains that teachers need to be held to high expectations.  “Don’t differentiate the expectations,” she says. “Differentiate the support.”

This means teachers need a professional support system that takes into account every factor that affects teaching:

  • Our knowledge and training
  • Our personality
  • Our experience
  • Our family responsibilities
  • Our personal goals
  • Even our health or the health of our loved ones

Garfield finds that, for teacher leaders, determining the varying levels of support is difficult.  Furthermore, the capacity to provide those varied levels of support to every teacher in a school building is humanly impossible.

Still, good teacher leaders search for ways to provide the support they can for the benefit of teachers and students.

Good teachers stay in teaching because we want to do great things

In the visual lecture, motivation researcher and author, Dan Pink, highlights another motivational factor: humans desire to find “transcendental purpose.”  Pink explains how when the focus on profit overpowers an organization’s purpose, “people don’t do great things.”

Perpetually, when our teaching ideas don't work out, we feel disillusioned, defeated.

But when they work, the sense of accomplishment is incomparable.  Someone recently told me, “In teaching, the lows are low—but the highs are high.”  These highs reaffirm our purpose for being teachers.

This transcendental purpose is why good teachers stay in teaching despite the scandals, the turmoil, the administrative turnover, the policy battles, and the work that never ends.

I, for example, teach writing because it nourishes emotions and augments the mind.  We hear and use words so casually these days that they become like oxygen: assumed and undervalued.  Often too easily accepted, words lose their worth or gain unmerited importance.

I teach writing so students remember that just as there are unending possibilities to use language, there are unending possibilities to create a future beyond any overwhelming circumstance.

As we learn the guidelines for accomplished writing, we defy the boundaries of audience so that our words and our experiences become one universal wisdom among us that engages us to feel, to think, to speak, to ask, “What do I believe?”

Many days, I feel like I fulfill my purpose. But there are still days when I do not.

On the nights when I begin to believe that I am ready to leave teaching again, I remind myself that there has been more good than bad in my classrooms over the last twenty years.

One day, perhaps, if I feel unfulfilled or like I cannot give as a teacher anymore, I hope to find the courage to leave.  Because if we do not find meaning in what we do—sometimes for reasons beyond our control—we have to move on.  Somehow, I’ve found the motivation to keep teaching.

Last week on one of those nights when I questioned how much longer I can teach, I accepted something valuable:

We might not be happy teachers—we’re not supposed to be. Because if we are, we’re likely taking more than we’re giving.  We can, however, be teachers with a meaningful purpose.

We can be teachers who walk into our classrooms prepared to meet our students’ academic needs and emotional states as best we can in whatever circumstances we face, and think, “Today, I will try to give my students something good.”

If you're a teacher, why do you stay in teaching these days?  Add your comment below with your Facebook account.

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