Why be a Career Teacher?

Teaching is increasingly seen as a two to five year career.  There are plenty of reasons to leave the profession, including an anemic salary scale and fragments of NCLB still buried in the system like shrapnel, sapping some of the joy and autonomy from the profession. So why should anyone make a career out of teaching? What are the benefits to the kids, the other teachers, and to those of us who have chosen teaching as a lifelong craft?

A recent New York Times article describes the view in many charter schools that “teaching for two to five years is seen as acceptable and, at times, even desirable.”

It’s not a shocking finding. There are plenty of reasons to leave teaching—hard work for soft pay, a salary scale that nudges up in puny increments no matter how good you become, and fragments of NCLB still buried in the system like shrapnel, sapping some of the joy and autonomy from the profession.

So why should anyone make a career out of teaching? What are the benefits to the kids, the other teachers, and to you?

 

Benefits to the kids

The teachers I know become better at teaching every year. Part of it is the basics—learning to be more effective at teaching math, reading, writing, and science. Part of it is learning to teach those other abilities that matter tremendously but don’t really lend themselves to a textbook—21st century skills like ingenuity and real-world problem-solving, non-cognitive skills like perseverance and collaboration.

But it goes way beyond how effectively I can impart a set of skills to 25 kids in a given year. At its heart, teaching is not just about understanding subjects, but about understanding kids.

My mentors knew plenty about the content they taught, but what amazed me was their gift for connecting with children as human beings. Laughing with a student in the middle of a 1-on-1 math session, then getting back to work. Handing the exact right book to a kid who was feeling self-conscious about his weight or lonely at recess. Helping each child to become more patient, more compassionate, or more confident, one moment at a time.

Even by narrow measures, like standardized test scores, experienced teachers are more effective than newer teachers. But when we consider the critical abilities that most tests don’t capture, then add in the ability to shape the kind of human beings our students become, experience matters even more.

 

Benefits to Other Teachers

One of the things that troubles me most when I talk to new teachers is how isolated they feel. Teaching is hard and complicated, but it never should be lonely. Career teachers tend to become mentors, and they often impart as much wisdom and expertise to the teachers around them as they do to their students.

When I first started teaching, I was trying so hard to meet my 32 students’ needs, I didn’t have much time or energy for the other kids in our school. But a few years into my career, I stopped just thinking about my own class and started thinking about the other second grade classes next door and across the hall.

How could I share ideas and resources with the other teachers in my grade-level team? How could our classes work together when we did science experiments or math projects?

If my class did better than the kids next door on a reading assessment, I didn’t celebrate. I tried to figure out what I could do to make sure those students improved by the time the next assessment came around.

Around my 5th year of teaching, I started thinking at a school level instead of a grade level. Could my 2nd graders be reading buddies for the kindergartners? Could I lead professional development sessions on my class’s research project that would be useful to the 4th and 5th grade teachers?

Once I shifted the focus from “my students” to “our students,” I started thinking about ways my work as a teacher could impact kids in other schools, districts, and states. Every year, that circle of influence gets a little wider.

 

Benefits to You

Ask any teacher what makes the work worth it, and every one of them will say the same thing: the kids. It’s a joy to be in their company each day, and it only gets better with time.

One of my early heroes was Al Gordon, a kindergarten teacher who had taught for over 30 years at our school in West Harlem. When he and I went to lunch, it was like hanging out with a rock star. Little kids would come up just to shake his hand. So would adults who had been in his class as five-year olds.

During parent-teacher conferences, he often came face to face with parents who had been in his class 20 years earlier. Once a mom asked, “So, how’s Miguel behaving in class?” Mr. Gordon answered, “About like you did—not good!”, and they both cracked up.

Every couple of months, a former student shows up at my door, with that same 2nd grade face now framed by Beyoncé hair or hulking shoulders. These familiar-faced teenagers always ask the same question: “Do you remember me?”

Here’s my answer to these kids, who taught me more than I taught them:

“Of course I remember you. I’ll remember you when I’m old and wrinkled and have white hair, when I’m creaking in a rocking chair on a porch with a blanket over my old-man knees. You are the reason we all work so hard to become good at this job. You are the reason I continue to teach. You make this career a calling, and you have made this calling a career.”

What better professional path to follow? What better way to spend a life?