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Why this effective and passionate teacher is leaving the classroom (for now)

Tonishia Short has been a grade four teacher and a Gifted & Talented resource teacher. She has presented at conferences, ranked in the top 5 in the district for SOL scores in Reading & Virginia Studies, and holds a Masters degree in Curriculum & Instruction. In her words, “I walk steadfast in my truth of being an educator who values the art and science of the craft.”

When you look up the phrase “The one that got away” you find an urban dictionary post that reads: “The person that you could've and should've ended up with but didn't, usually because of a series of poor choices on your end.”

I can’t think of a better way to talk about my friend Tonishia Short, a gifted and talented resource teacher who has decided to leave teaching, at least temporarily, this year. I asked her some questions about her decision. Here is what she said:

Q: Talk about why you became a teacher and your career path as an educator.

A: I am the cliche of the young girl who always knew she wanted to be a teacher. No one in my immediate family attended college, let alone pursued a career in the education field, so I feel that my innate drive to become an educator was my God given purpose from birth. In a sense, teaching chose me, I did not choose it.

I would "play school" with my stuffed animals, hoard teacher supplies, and even isolated myself from peers to read chapter books. As I got older, I served in leadership capacities on sports teams and heavily devoted myself to interacting with youth through teacher cadet programs, recreational leagues, and working at a daycare.

Even knowing I would be a teacher, I did not take school seriously, never seeing the point of learning what I believed to be useless information. It wasn't until I entered college at Radford University that I began to make the Dean's List. It was the professor's attitude toward the content that made me excited about learning.

I made it my mission to meet kids where they are and provide them with unique learning experiences that made them excited about coming to class each day because they never knew what to expect from the day's lesson. Thanks to my alma mater for lighting this fire in me!

Q: Given this fire, why have you decided to leave teaching next year?

A: Teaching is a true passion of mine. I thoroughly enjoy it--teaching that is (the paperwork is not my favorite). Teaching is a huge part of who I am. I light up when I talk about kids, curriculum, and the art and science of teaching.

It was the moment when teaching began to feel like a 9-5 job that I knew it was time for me to take a break. When school culture and climate are not at the forefront, when there is not a push for services for identified gifted students, when an administrator tells me that they do not have time to implement the "fun stuff" because of their busy schedule and accreditation, when close to a dozen staff members from your building decide to transfer to a new school or district, and the remaining teachers are shifted to different grade levels--all of this snowballed into a revelation. 

I opted not to renew my contract for the upcoming school year. I do not have interviews lined up for a new position. I am entering year seven with a clear head and putting love for myself and my passion for teaching at the forefront. I am seeking a good fit, and being extremely picky about where I hang my hat next. I take pride in having ownership over my decisions in a field where choice is not always granted freely.

Q: How has your experience and your thinking about teaching changed from your pre-service days to now?

A: In college they don't teach you how to deal with the colleague on your grade level who teaches the same lessons from over fifteen years ago (while I am next door using oreo cookies, marshmallows, and adapted mainstream songs to teach figurative language). That was an interesting year of learning how to compromise.

In college they don't teach you how to deal with a principal whose educational philosophies don't align with yours. The one who tells me that my classroom should be divided by a partition because my high energy during small group was distracting to the remaining students in my class. That was an interesting year of getting really good at disaggregating data to show that my students were making progress.

In college they don't teach you that the people who create state mandates often have never taught a day in their life. College did not teach me that those same policymakers can force a school to lose its mission of cultivating unique learning experiences. That was a hard year of watching a school staff divide and finding the strength to walk away from something that no longer served me.

Teaching has taught me resilience, the importance of stability and freedom, and how great classroom management allows for great teaching.

Q: What would have to change in order for you to stay in teaching?

A: How do architects build sturdy structures? They brainstorm their design from the ground up. We should do this in education: build from the ground up.

The foundation is our students.

Take care of them first. What extracurricular activities and diverse programs are you offering outside of their classroom learning experiences? School should be a place where "learning and magic meet,” an infamous Ron Clark quote, a well-known educator from Atlanta, Georgia, who opened his own school. School should be a collaborative effort: teachers, parents, community partners, and administrative staff, working together to ensure the whole child is being served.

The second layer are the teachers.

How do we show them they are truly appreciated? Do we treat them as if they are educated adults? Do we allow them to learn from their peers? If a teacher is struggling with classroom transitions do we allow her to consult with a master teacher in the building to help her learn a few tips and strategies? We have “sleeping giants” in our schools. We need to stop allocating funding to outside companies when we have resources at our fingertips.

The last layer of the structure, the top layer, is the administration.

When the bottom of the structure is sturdy and stable, the top will be successful as well. Scores will rise, school culture and climate will thrive, and school will be a fun place to learn, teach, lead, and grow. It takes administration to cultivate relationships with students and teachers and truly realize the importance of a sturdy foundation.

But, too often in education we build our structure in reverse (top down). What needs to change is an emphasis on sturdy foundations and community. Plain and simple.

Q: What advice would you give policymakers and educators about how to recruit and retain teachers?

A: Teachers give so much of ourselves to students each day. Yet, we can only do this once we get to know them.

One year, I had a student in my room who'd never had a Black teacher before entering my room in 4th grade. He also had a strained relationship with his biological mother who left him as a baby to pursue a new relationship. For months, we struggled to see eye to eye. I dove deep into this kid's personal life, uncovering all I could to help me learn what made him defiant towards my authority and closed off to forming friendships. I discovered his interests, remained in constant contact with his father, and found out about things that triggered him. Slowly, he started to open up. Then one day, the kid who barely gave me eye contact, hugged me. A moment that still makes me choke up.

Those small moments are what keep me coming back year after year. Those are the moments future teachers need to hold onto as well. Those small, yet big moments, are what make your hardest days bearable. Allow your students to reflect back to you the traits in them that also reside in you.

Even with the constraints in the profession, teaching allows for lots of freedom in how you spend your day with your students. You can design the lesson and teach in a way that is engaging, motivating, and inspiring. Find a school home that allows you to do just that, and they will never have to worry about retaining a good educator.

Policymakers can heed this advice, too. Get to know the communities you serve. Tour a school impacted by poverty, then venture to the "good side of town" and see how vastly the schools differ. Keep this in mind when you repeatedly tell a school they do not meet state accreditation, yet you are not providing proper resources to combat the discrepancies in education inequality. Get to know your community by putting your own agenda aside, and watch teacher retention increase.

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

John’s interview with Tonishia 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. Also, join our Twitter chat, co-hosted with the Learning Policy Institute, on Wednesday, July 12th, at 4 p.m. EST, #Teachershortage. 



Jessica Cuthbertson commented on June 29, 2017 at 11:45am:

Powerful story...

I believe this story will resonate on different levels with so many educators. What strikes me is how passionate you are about teaching, students, the profession at large, and creating the types of schools and learning experiences our students deserve. I think these are common goals for passionate educators, yet how many of us feel we are working against a system that doesn't hold the same values (or that does but allows other things to get in the way?)

What also strikes me is how your story contrasts with this educator's: -- who is leaving largely based on monetary reasons (though she does cite many working conditions as evidence for why teachers should make more $). 

I read your stories less than a day apart. Though I believe teachers should earn a living wage regardless of where they teach and be compensated for their professional expertise, pay was not a driving factor in your decision to take a break. 

Educators don't expect to make big bucks but we do expect to work in thriving school cultures with shared vision who put kids first. We do (and should) expect and demand in your words: "an emphasis on sturdy foundations and community. Plain and simple."

Thank you for sharing your personal journey and story -- one that will resonate and connect with so many educators.  

Renee Moore commented on June 30, 2017 at 7:06pm:

Sadly Common

First, thank you so much Tonishia for sharing your story publicly and with us. I have seen all of the scenarios you mention, and I know many teachers who have made the same decision you have. 

As Jessica C. mentions in her comments, while a few people do leave teaching over financial issues (some simply can't afford to stay in the profession); most teachers who leave cite reasons similar to yours. It's our dedication to our students and our profession that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to stay and be forced to provide less than our best or be forced to act unethically. 

The first time I was named District Teacher of the Year, was also the year the superintendent told me unless I stopped speaking up for teachers and students, or as she put it, "getting in my way" (I was local association president), she would make it her personal crusade to make my next school year as hellish as possible, including seeking to get my teaching credential revoked. I ended up changing districts, but only after much anguish.

While that may seem like an extreme case, on a daily basis, many teachers--particularly those who are striving for highly accomplished teaching--find ourselves fighting to simply do right by our students or to be treated like the professionals we are. 

I hope your hiatus from the profession proves temporary; your insights and your passion are sorely needed. 

Laurie Wasserman commented on June 30, 2017 at 7:52pm:

Your interview was my story too

Tonishia and John,

what a great interview, and so insightful. I left the classroom at Christmas this past year. I had been teaching for 36 years, 33 in public schools. I loved teaching, it was and is my passion, just as you do. I loved working alongside some amazing educators; it truly was a marriage of finishing each other's sentences, communicating without words but eyes and nods. I shared a study skills classroom with a phenomenal para professional who loved my zaniness and out of the box thinking to motivate hard to reach kids.

I was blessed with 2 principals who supported my TLI work, my National Board work and both own copies of Teaching 2030.

I sobbed the last day of teaching; I knew there was no going back. Like you, Tonishia,  I worked with an administrator whose educational philosophies didn't align with mine. She probably didn't even have one having never tuaght middle school kids. Tonishia, you will find your way back towards a setting where you are celebrated and embraced. I found a postiion where I get to work with kids and parents who want all the out of the box thinking that educators like us are passionate about, and so will you.

My best to you for being picky; you will know it when you find it, and until then, no regrets!The kids whose lives you touched will be forever changed because they were in Ms. Short's classroom.

Daryl Seldon commented on July 3, 2017 at 3:04am:

Administration Woes

I have also taught at schools where the administration had gotten out of sync with the student population and there was a cult of personality around the principal.  It was all about her, her dress and style, the Escalade parked right in front of the main entrance.  In a school stricken by poverty and all the problems that come along with that, she was doing pep rallies at strategy meetings.  Things didn't go well as my first year teaching unfolded.  The school was in renovation, and the school opened while renovation was still under way.  Children, bulldozers, Georgia red clay, bad weather with wet roads , and mobile units down a hill from the main building don't mix, and ambulances had to pick up injured students more than once before I left.  The school was opened early due to pressure from the board and superintendent and a refusal to admit that construction was taking too long and opening day needed to be moved back.  They put themselves first, not the students.  They were worried about how they would look if they missed the deadline they had set.It's unfortunate when these things happen.  I have discovered a new way to rate and learn about school administrations, so that we can see what is going on with the administration before we apply to the school or send our children there.  The review website allows you to rate schools and ask questions about the administration.  For example, one question asks 'Who does the administration hold responsible when problems arise?' and one can answer, student, parent, or school.  Better yet, you can add your own review question, such as, "Does the administration put the students first, and support it's teachers?"  That would be helpful for students and teachers.  It will help us find the best schools and improve struggling schools. 

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