According to a recent survey, 87.5 percent of Teach for America teachers plan to leave the classroom at some point in their careers.
I was not one of those teachers.
I was a Teach for America corps member, but for a significant period of time, I thought I would teach forever. I joined the TFA corps in 2011 and moved to New Orleans, where I started teaching in a brand-new charter school. The work was challenging but rewarding, and halfway through my second year, I signed a contract to teach for a third year, confident I would continue to develop as a teacher.
So why am I typing this from the library of the law school I’ve attended for more than a year?
In the midst of a staggering teacher shortage in Oklahoma (where I graduated from college in 2009), I think it’s worth examining some of the social factors that make it a lot easier for teachers — especially those who once intended to make teaching a career — to leave the classroom.
The pay, the hours and the assumptions
If I’m being honest, my decision to leave education had something to do with the pay. It had something to do with the hours. It had a lot to do with the combination of the pay and the hours. I could handle making less than $40,000 a year, and I could handle working 70-hour weeks, but it didn’t make a lot of sense to do both at the same time.
It also had something to do with a nagging sense that if I kept teaching, no one outside education was ever really going to take me seriously.
The summer after my second year of teaching, my boyfriend and I were on vacation, making small talk with another couple. The man we were talking to asked what I did. I told him I taught fourth grade.
“Hmm,” he said.
The man turned to my boyfriend and asked what he did; my boyfriend said he taught third grade.
“Wow!” the man said. “Really? That’s great! That is so interesting! Tell me more about that!”
I don’t think these divergent reactions had anything to do with the fact I taught fourth grade and my boyfriend taught third.
I think that particular man, like a lot of people in the United States, harbored a certain set of assumptions about women who choose to be teachers, and I don’t think it’s just because female teachers are more common than males. I think there is a largely unexpressed, but very real, sense in the United States that women who teach are not particularly ambitious, and maybe even not particularly intelligent.
The idea is that women who teach want to play with kids all day, not work too hard, and have summers off. We assume that if they were really smart, they would want to do something else. Something more challenging.
I’m not sure where these assumptions come from. Maybe it’s that our teachers growing up were mild-mannered women whose lives outside the classroom were impossible to imagine. Maybe it’s that our hazy memories of elementary school involve crayons and recess and books and maybe some worksheets.
But whatever the source, these assumptions are toxic. They make intelligent, ambitious young people considering careers in teaching think that education is “beneath” them. They make teachers who are already in the classroom think they need to get out soon if they ever want to build a prestigious career.
Physically, mentally and emotionally demanding
There is no doubt in my mind that this insidious undervaluation of teaching as a career contributes to teacher shortages like the one Oklahoma is experiencing. To be sure, there are other issues that have a powerful effect on teacher hiring and retention. As OU President David L. Boren is attempting to address via a proposed $0.01 sales tax, pay has to improve, and somebody needs to call off the standardized-testing arms race.
But our misconception of what it means to be a teacher plays a role as well. And the view that teaching isn’t terribly challenging isn’t just bad for education; it’s demonstrably false.
I’ve had a fair number of jobs for someone who hasn’t hit 30. I’ve worked for a bimonthly magazine, a daily newspaper and a Sonic Drive-In. I’ve been a freelance journalist trying to make rent in Washington, D.C., and a summer associate at an international law firm. But I have never had a job that’s more physically, mentally or emotionally demanding than teaching fourth grade.
If you’re a teacher, your work starts long before kids file into the classroom Monday morning.
Before school starts in August, you’ve mapped out unit plans to ensure the necessary grade-level material is covered before semester’s end. You’ve planned individual lessons, which requires both strategic and creative thinking. You have to know what needs to be taught, and how to teach it most effectively in a large-group setting. (If you decide a large-group format isn’t conducive to learning, you have to decide how you’re going to break students into smaller groups, how you will teach each individual group, and what the other students will be doing while you’re focused on an individual group).
You have to translate your knowledge of what to teach and how to teach it into a lesson that will be engaging and accessible for most of the students in the classroom, and then you have to think about what activities or exercises will allow students to practice the skills they’re learning. If you’re teaching in a school or district that doesn’t provide a curriculum, you will have to create those materials.
Doing dozens of things at once
And notice I said “most” students — no single lesson is going to reach every student in your classroom. There will always be a few who started the school year so behind that they’re not going to get it, and a couple who are so ahead of the curve that they’ll be bored. So as you’re planning your main lesson, you’re thinking about how you’ll differentiate it for the kids who are ahead and the kids who are behind, and whether they need different materials than the ones the rest of the class is using. (The answer is probably yes.)
Once you start actually delivering instruction, you’re doing a dozen things at once: talking about whatever it is you’re teaching, demonstrating as necessary at the front of the classroom, watching for signals that your students do or don’t understand what you’re talking about — are they looking at you? Nodding? Writing things down? Do they look confused, or worse, totally vacant?
You’re scanning the room for other potential signs of trouble — is someone talking? Texting? Looking at Pokemon cards under his desk? If you do spot an infraction, you have to address it, both to make sure the offender doesn’t miss the lesson, and to keep him from distracting the students around him. But you have to address it without disrupting the flow of the lesson or calling too much attention to the student who’s off-task. (Nothing reinforces bad behavior like attention.)
Once the lesson is over and the kids are working on an assignment, you’re not heading back to your desk to prop up your feet. You’re circulating throughout the room, peeking over students’ shoulders to see if they’re doing the work correctly, and looking for pencils that aren’t moving or heads that are down. Sometimes a raised eyebrow is enough to get a student back on track, but sometimes you need to have a conversation. The issue could be academic, but it could also be something else entirely.
You’re really hoping for academic issues. If a student still doesn’t understand personification, you can give him a few more examples and help him with the next question on the worksheet, which should be enough to let him finish the work on his own. But if a student is having trouble focusing because she’s worried about a sibling who’s in jail or even just a classmate who was mean to her on the bus, that’s going to require an entirely different sort of conversation.
And this is what you’re doing when things are going well. If you teach in a school where a substantial proportion of your students have experienced some sort of trauma (as a result of exposure to poverty, violence, family disruption or any number of factors), there will be times when something goes spectacularly wrong.
A 9-year-old will start bellowing profanity, throw over his desk and then run through the room knocking things to the floor. A student will, with little to no warning, rip an assignment in half, then move on to the bulletin board, tearing down the work of classmates, who burst into tears at the sight of their work being ripped off the wall. When something like this happens, it’s up to you to respond in a way that keeps other students safe, neutralizes the behavior as quickly as possible and allows the other 29 children in the room to keep learning.
If, after such an episode, you realize that your own heart is racing or you’re feeling inclined to snap at students, you may not walk to the water cooler and take a few moments to collect yourself. You will stay with your students until the class schedule says it’s time to take them to art or lunch or music.
Multitasking is a state of being
In short, teaching is an incredibly difficult job that requires intellectual firepower, emotional intelligence and nerves of steel. Teachers have to make hundreds of decisions a day, quickly. Multitasking is a state of being. But you’re not switching back and forth between Word and Excel; you’re transitioning among your roles as an academic instructor, disciplinarian, caregiver and counselor, sometimes multiple times in a matter of minutes.
To encourage talented people to become teachers and to keep good teachers in the classroom, we have to abandon the idea that education is for people who don’t want to work very hard, and recognize that it is, and should be, a field where talented, ambitious people can go to be challenged and rewarded on a daily basis.
We must pay teachers better if only to acknowledge that educating young people is both valuable and difficult work, and afford it the respect we assign to other challenging fields.
After all, teaching isn’t rocket science. It’s harder.