thoughts on career teaching
there is an article in yesterday’s new york times titled “at charter schools, short careers by choice.” this phenomenon is not news to anyone who works in education, nor is it completely unique to charter schools. my own teaching career, now at the very beginning of its second decade, still feels relatively short to me, but it has been long enough to make me one of the most senior teachers at my school, and to see me through some significant changes in perspective. being a first- or second-year teacher, especially when you are 23 years old and only beginning to understand the world of adulthood, is in many ways a completely different experience from what my job is now. the most consistent part of that experience for me has been that teaching is always interesting, often fun, and more rewarding than it is demoralizing (though it’s both, on a regular basis). most everything else has changed.
when I started teaching, I understood on an academic level that my more grown-up colleagues, the ones with mortgages and families, had different priorities from my own. I grasped the reasons that they might be less willing than I was to spend thirteen hours straight in the school building, or more reluctant to answer weekend phone calls from students. but at that point, I have to admit that I couldn’t really imagine why I would want to dedicate less than 80% of my waking life to my job. it felt good to fully immerse myself, because teaching truly and honestly was the most important thing in my life and I liked it that way. now, even though I don’t really want to be separated from my classroom or my leadership roles at school for an entire year, I am already dreading the thought of leaving my twelve-week-old baby, and I can’t imagine that feeling will become any less intense once she is actually born. teaching is never really easy, on the whole, but there were times when it was easier to do something so hard. (and I don’t mean to imply that parenthood is the only thing that is significant enough to be more important, either. everyone’s life expands, whether or not it is because of babies.)
so as someone who truly wants to be a career teacher — to retire from the classroom, not to resign from it — of course I am offended by the idea that my job can be done just as effectively by newbies, and of course I am worried about the aspects of it that feel less than sustainable. but those thoughts and feelings are old hat by now, and don’t really need to be hashed out any more. instead, here are a few less navel-gazey reactions I had to the times article and its accompanying avalanche of comments.
1. wendy kopp is just wrong. this is what she said: “Strong schools can withstand the turnover of their teachers… The strongest schools develop their teachers tremendously so they become great in the classroom even in their first and second years.” this idea is borderline delusional. can you become a good teacher in two years? yes, and I think all schools should make a point of “developing their teachers tremendously.” but if greatness means reaching your full potential — or at least approaching the vertical edge of that asymptote — then you can absolutely not become great in the classroom in two years. I’m not really sure you can do it in ten years. I know I haven’t plateaued yet. when I read this quotation to spider, he said, “no. people who just became great at something don’t quit doing it right away.” I think he has a point.
2. the alternative is not 30 years of mediocrity (or worse). you see this argument in the comments a lot, or sometimes from educators themselves: better to have someone young and talented for two years than leave a terrible teacher in the classroom for thirty years! or my high school teachers were all old and burned out, I wish I’d had somebody who actually cared. I agree with those statements, at least in the sense that I think teachers who are perpetually unsuccessful or unhappy should stop teaching. the idea that teaching is something you can’t be passionate about or good at for more than a few years, though, is both sad and wrong. professional development for young teachers should be designed to help them become good, quickly, but not to the point that they are completely spent by the time they are 25. we should build their capacity, not overflow it. more veteran teachers like me also need support to continue to develop, because I think the feeling that I am still getting better at my job is one of the things that makes me want to keep going. (and if you haven’t seen it, here’s a report from TNTP about retention of the most effective teachers.)
3. there’s nothing wrong with remaining a teacher. the article mentions a 27-year-old principal who oversees a (small) staff where more than 50% of the teachers are in their first year. being an administrator is undoubtedly a very different job from teaching — honestly, I would leave education altogether before I would take an admin position — and I believe that young principals can be good at their jobs. but truthfully, there is something weird about being evaluated and counseled by people who have significantly less experience than you do. obviously, basic math dictates that this will eventually happen to any veteran teacher who stays in the classroom until retirement, but I’m not sure it should happen so frequently to teachers in their first ten years. the idea that there is something bigger and better out there than “just” teaching is based either on an undervaluation of what teachers do or an overestimation of what everyone else does. I’m not saying teachers matter the most, but they absolutely don’t matter any less than principals, chancellors, or superintendents. (or doctors. we lose a lot of our young science teachers to medical school.)
4. teacher turnover affects more than just student achievement levels. it’s frustrating to be constantly trying to hire new teachers. it can feel futile to pour two years of support and collaborative work into a new teacher only to have to start again when that person leaves. it’s been harder for me to improve as a department leader than as a teacher because I feel like I keep starting over. of course, none of that is as important as how it affects the students. they notice when teachers leave, and they often express a sense of abandonment when reminiscing about the teachers they had in 9th grade who are gone by the time they graduate. that matters, and it’s something that no amount of intensive preservice preparation, natural teaching talent, or high test scores is going to make up for.