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Dear Future Teacher: Why we need you to choose and stay in the profession

For the next two months, teachers of the CTQ Collaboratory will examine the issue of teacher shortages, including recruitment, retention, and ongoing teacher development. Building from their own experiences, as well as the policy research and writing of CTQ’s Barnett Berry and the Learning Policy Institute's Patrick M. Shields featured in this recently released Kappan article, these classroom experts will propose innovative solutions to our nation’s persistent challenge: to ensure quality teaching and learning for every student.

Dear Future Teacher,

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week. This is the week that the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA) reserves to #thankateacher. You don’t know it yet, but this annual practice might become your least and most favorite week of the year. Let’s just say that teachers’ relationship with feeling appreciated is “complicated.” I usually kick off this “complicated” honoring of our challenging profession with a celebratory note to my teacher colleagues. This year, the amazing teachers here at the Center for Teaching Quality are hosting an eight week exploration of why we hope you will become a teacher, and the ways we believe the profession could be improved to make that possible.

Why teach?

As a public school art teacher and college professor, I have had this very conversation with many young people, future teachers, and practicing educators. As I think about who you are, I wonder, “Are you a person of color? Do you look like the students you will serve? Will you be someone who chooses to teach, even though you could do something more profitable or glamorous?” You might be in middle school right now, or maybe considering your postsecondary options as a junior in high school.

Just last week, I bid farewell to a former student who completed his student teaching at my school. He thanked me for helping him make the decision to teach when he was an undergraduate. He said it was because I asked him, “What do you want to do with your life?” and he met teachers in our class who inspired him. You face the same questions we all face: “What is important to me? What will make my life meaningful? Where do I want to be in 5, 10, or 20 years?”

The answers to these questions are changing, especially for Millennials whose ideals and expectations about careers differ from previous generations. One answer to this question is obvious. Your community needs you to become, and continue to be, a teacher because there aren’t enough teachers to go around. The demand for teachers varies by content area, state, and even by school. According to LPI’s research, if you are interested in special education, math, or science we really need you as these areas are the hardest to staff. Also, students in high-poverty and high-minority schools are more likely to have uncertified and inexperienced  teachers than low-poverty schools. These shortages are the byproduct of a combination of factors, including funding priorities, high demand, unsupportive administrators, and turnover.

Why stay?

I see the potential challenges of teaching ahead of you --- mastering the instrument of your voice, your presence, and your agency. After you have made the decision to become a teacher, we face the critical task of preparing you well. Even if you select and complete an excellent preparation program, chances are where you begin your teaching career will not be where you end it. If you start in a high-poverty school like the ones I have taught in for the past twenty years, you might not last very long. I can count on one hand the number of student teachers I have seen stick around more than three years. Sometimes young teachers leave to find a better fit in a less demanding setting, while the students they teach during those first three years are passed on to yet another fresh teacher.

At first glance, teaching would seem to be an ideal career for future generations. According to a Gallup poll today’s Millennials are looking for purpose, strength based development, and working on teams led by coaches. All of these ideals are a part of being a teacher, however, they are also looking to thrive by creating a “good life” through work-life balance and supportive working conditions. These are factors that vary greatly from school to school and district to district. Will you find that the benefits outweigh the challenges in our profession?

I can tell you this. I was where you are in 1995. I knew I didn’t want to sit behind a desk. I knew I wanted to learn, smile, and have each day mean something.

I chose to work with our most underserved and vulnerable students in a high-poverty preschool program not because it was easy, but because it was important.

I have pursued my own development for the benefit of my students and I have found a good life in teaching. After more than 20 years in the profession, I can honestly say I would make the same decision again.  

Perhaps now is the time for us to move beyond Teacher Appreciation Week. Instead of seeing this as our annual opportunity to #thankateacher, let’s use this time to remember that if #teachersmatter, we listen to their ideas and honor their reasons for joining (and staying) in the profession. I believe today’s teachers offer innovative solutions for teacher recruitment and retention, many of which will be explored in this roundtable. Check back here to follow and join the conversation.


John's post is part of CTQ's May/June blogging roundtable on teacher shortages. To join the conversation, comment on this blog and read the other blogs in this series. You can find an updated list of all posts on this page. Follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter to see when each new blog is posted, and use #CTQCollab to join the conversation on social media.

 

13 Comments

Jon Eckert commented on May 8, 2017 at 2:54pm:

Well said

 

John,

So well said. I still use a quotation from you with all of the pre-service teachers with whom I get to work - "No profession can compete with the spark between souls that occurs between teachers and students." This is the essence of teaching - this deep learning that fundamentally changes the human condition through understanding and being understood. This post is a great reminder of why teaching is so powerful. Thanks for the reminder.

 

Jessica Cuthbertson commented on May 9, 2017 at 11:14am:

Love this Quote...

I love that quote and love that you share it with students. I miss the classroom every single day and agree that this "spark between souls" is truly a unique phenomenon that occurs between teacher and student.

How do we explain this to undecided majors? Doesn't this mean the students sharing this spark with today's teachers are our most natural future teachers? How do we authentically share this as a recruitment tool? And while I agree that you feel, live, and breathe this spark daily while teaching -- how do we ensure that these intangible "perks" or "benefits" aren't the only thing drawing preservice teachers to the profession. Adequate compensation, good working conditions, climate and culture, supportive administrators -- all practitioners deserve these tangible and intangible benefits, too. 

John Holland John Holland commented on May 10, 2017 at 6:39am:

Thank you.

Thanks Jon. I always value our conversations. Why have your students chosen to join in the profession?

 

Jon Eckert commented on May 15, 2017 at 10:35am:

Calling

 

My students enter for a number of reasons, but almost all feel a sense of calling. This probably makes sense at a faith-based liberal arts college. They have a desire to serve a purpose greater than themselves. Because of this, we get phenomenal teaching candidates who believe deeply in the potential of each of their students.

 

Renee Moore commented on May 9, 2017 at 1:22am:

A Decision That Changes Your Life and Thousands of Others

I appreciate this appreciation from you, John. It gave me a moment from my week of grading final essays and exams to remember why I do what I do. 

When I entered the profession 27 years ago, I was a 35-year old, married, mother of four who had been a freelance journalist (among other things). Since then, I have worked personally with over 4,000 students, and collectively with thousands more. When I think about the impact just one teacher can have on the life of a single student, I am humbled by what my words and actions may have accomplished over the years. 

I know what some of the results have been. As we used to say at my grad school [Bread Loaf School of English/Middlebury College], "We inhabit the consequences of our work." I live and work in a small town in rural Mississippi; many of my former students stayed or returned here to raise their own families. A significant number of them are now local educators--teachers, principals, librarians, but not enough.

I'm forever grateful for the opportunity, the challenge, and the grace to teach. It is the noblest profession. 

Tricia Ebner commented on May 9, 2017 at 9:52pm:

#TeachersMatter

There is so much power in this post; there are so many ideas that resonate. What is standing out to me most, though, is this one: 

. . . we listen to their ideas and honor their reasons for joining (and staying) in the profession.

The importance of teacher voice is so critical, and it's been discussed so much, yet still it seems that those who make decisions and hold power are choosing not to listen. We can't give up in frustration. How can those of us who have stayed support our newest teachers and encourage them to also use their voices? If we collectively don't advocate for our students and our profession, can we live with what is decided for us? 

I would love to hear some thoughts from others. 

John Holland John Holland commented on May 10, 2017 at 6:49am:

The Consquences of Your Work

Renee,

Thank you for your response. I have always appreciated the way you are able to communicate the weight of our work to colleagues the education community. Artist Roberto Lugo recently told a group of teachers, "Teachers are always one sentence away from changing a life." This was even more powerful because it was a teacher in community college who changed his life. He never knew he would could be an artist until he shown "what could be" by a teacher. Thank you for all you to for your students and our profession.

Barnett Berry commented on May 10, 2017 at 7:47am:

John. I loved the opportunity

John. I loved the opportunity to queue up your terrific post. After reading it again I was struck by your words: "Perhaps now is the time for us to move beyond Teacher Appreciation Week" and the implications for our long-standing practices of honoring teacher exceptionalism. Several pervasive myths prevail:

1. The system only attracts a few "teachers of the year"  [ie the Erin Grunwalds of  Freedom Writers or "John Keatings" of Deads Poet Society] and they alone as super-heroes can fix the ills of the profession, one by one. 

2. Teachers are born not made - adn thus we do not need to invest in teacher prep and deep professional learning systems led by teachers themselves. 

It is time to jettison Teacher Appreciation Week and begin to recognize teachers who spread their expertise as a collective -- not as individuals.

 

 

 

 

 

Jessica Cuthbertson commented on May 21, 2017 at 11:43pm:

From Teacher Appreciation to Collective Leadership

I agree wholeheartedly, Barnett. How do we best do this? I think CTQ's focus on highlighting and scaling the powerful collective leadership of educators is one way. We are more networked and connected than ever as educators, and yet too often still siloed in our work or islands in our own backyards. 

What would it take to make Teacher Appreciation Week completely irrelevant because systemic appreciation, respect, trust and autonomy was the norm in every public school and district? 

Brian Curtin commented on May 24, 2017 at 4:34pm:

It's a Challenge

Love the thoughtful questions! I'm also wondering, "What is it about this profession that will draw in these future teachers; conversely, what might scare them away?"  Perhaps there's at least one answer that potentially could serve as a response to both questions: It's an indescribable challenge.  But it's a challenge I feel confident will continue to draw the best and brightest.  Aside from the draw of working with children, our future educators will be drawn to the promise of continued professional growth and an opportunity to lead.  All teachers are leaders in some way, so I'm especially encouraged by a broadening shift toward clearer pathways to develop and lead as an educator.  

Cheryl Suliteanu commented on May 28, 2017 at 1:17pm:

the teaching edition of Survivor

Jessica you hit the nail on the head with the vision of collective impact versus being in our own version of Survivor every day.  

My 20 year career has been rich with deep, meaningful, and lasting relationships with my students and their families.  This is what has kept me in the profession.

The flip side of the coin is being on my island: how incredibly challenging it is to be an idealist, with passion, commitment, and strength, while handling the myriad of disappointments and frustrations of obstacles outside my circle of influence.  For example, my colleagues' mindsets - "this is how we've always done it" versus innovative, creative and collaborative dialogue about new ideas.

I have been a "lurker" in the educational community these last few years.  I have had trouble feeling connected and engaged with the world outside my classroom. Feeling isolated and powerless again after years of feeling like I could make a difference, has taken a toll on me... I now find myself craving the connections with like-minded educators I once felt, and renewing my belief in teacher driven change.  I want to get off my island!!!

I want to be a source of hope and inspiration for future teachers - yet, these days, I find myself concerned that my struggle to be inspired myself, would be a burden to them...

Perhaps my honesty about the challenges I've faced, and my pursuit of new inspiration and connection with other educators (from my first year teaching to my 20th year) could be inspiration enough? 

How do you foster passion and inspiration with your pre-service teachers yet provide them with enough reality to be prepared for the roller coaster they're getting on?

Justin Minkel commented on June 22, 2017 at 3:54pm:

What sustains us?

John, I love this piece. Policymakers considering recruitment/retention often think in numbers but have trouble capturing the human element, so we see incentives like salary and bonuses much more often than incentives like professional autonomy, the chance to collaborate with kindred spirits, or simply valuing a school culture of respect and support.

I have thought a lot about teacher burnout, and I don't think it can be captured in the simple terms of "work-life balance," which implies some kind of simple ratio of hours spent teaching to hours spent watching Netflix on the couch. Teaching, like all meaningful work, is simultaneously exhausting and renewing. The exhaustion will always be there. But we can amp up the renewal through opportunities to collaborate with one another, systems and curricula that value children as full human beings, and building a culture of true respect--which to me often involves shared power--not just appreciation.

Krista Galleberg commented on June 25, 2017 at 3:07pm:

Thank you!

This post brings me so much peace and joy to read - thank you. As a prospective educator, I often feel as if I must defend my interest in teaching, but when I read this post and the subsequent comments I relaxed, because I felt proud and confident in my decision to join this community by becoming a classroom teacher. This sentence especially resonated with me: "I see the potential challenges of teaching ahead of you --- mastering the instrument of your voice, your presence, and your agency." These challenges inspire (fear in) me, and this inspiration and slight sense of fear is exactly why I want to become a teacher. Thank you for being honest, supporting and encouraging with me and others like me. It is because of educators like you that I maintain my desire to become a teacher.

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