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?

  • tamiracole

    Right On!

    Justin:

    Thank you for writing this post. It is a great question to ask and ponder. In a changing time of educational reform and technological advancements the 21st century teacher has a different battle from the 20th century teacher. What does that mean for current teachers walking into this varied path of the unknown? That it takes our passion and heart to change the course of society each day. Although each day brings its challenges, it is not without its rewards-the relationships built with students. A hug or a high five and most importantly- a thank you! Teachers reflect on how to move forward each day in leading innovation in your classrooms!

  • Craig Lindvahl

    I stayed and stayed

    Thanks for the great thoughts here.  I just retired after 34 years of teaching, and am more excited about kids now than I was back in 1979 when I first entered a classroom.  

     

    I totally agree that one’s focus broadens as a career moves forward.  Once the day-to-day worries recede (and that comes primarily through experience), it’s easier to look at the bigger picture of what we do.

     

    I didn’t intend to stay on as a teacher.  I had career aspirations that reached far beyond the walls of a classroom.  I didn’t realize how hooked I would get on the opportunity to help create better people through my work as a teacher.  I just couldn’t leave.

     

    Even now, after all these years, I’m just teaching on a larger scale.  I have been given the opportunity to help students in other ways, and I’m using everything I’ve learned to help students and communities around the country.

     

    Bottom line is this:  every gifted teacher understands that great teaching isn’t complicated…it’s just hard.  Doing it well takes time, but doing it well changes everything for students lucky enough to work with a gifted teacher.

     

     

    • JustinMinkel

      Not complicated, just hard

      Craig, I love your line about teaching being not complicated, but hard.  I feel the same way about being a dad–I usually know, either intuitively, through advice from relatives and friends, or occasionally a book/website, what I should do in a given situation with my kids.  My goals for them are simple, too–I want them to be happy and good.  Doing it, though–constantly exercising patience and compassion, apologizing when that exercise fails, can be exhausting.  It’s renewing, too, though, and that’s what I think a lot of people don’t get about teaching, that for all we give in terms of time, energy, compassion, and so on, the students give it back to us, too.

      Thanks for your insights.

       

  • JustinMinkel

    21st century teachers (@Tamira)

    Tamira, thanks for writing.  You make a great pont–we focus on 21st century skills so much as if they’re disembodied from the 21st century humans who develop those skills.  What does it mean to be a 21st century kid?  What does it mean to be a 21st century teacher?

    At a minimum, we should make sure professional develpment reflects the 21st century skills we want our students to develop, like critical thinking, collaboration, and innovation.

  • Megan

    More

    This post is really sweet. The kids are certainly the gas in any teacher’s engine, and relationships with them keep giving long after they leave our classrooms. 

     
    Obviously, the challenges and rewards of being a career teacher are close to my heart. My mom and step-dad made it in the classroom for almost 40 years, and I know that their students gained hugely from their experience and dedication, the way they worked to get better every year and knew the needs of their students before their students did. My sister Sarah and I both gave it a meaningful try. Both of us made it longer than the 2-5 year standard, and both of us built lasting, inspiring relationships with students. We helped our colleagues and felt close to them. The work was meaningful, and the pay wasn’t a problem for either of us. I think that we, like lots of other people who leave teaching early, found the politics, drudgery, testing, fear of criticism, and paperwork overwhelming. Maybe we also wanted more time with our families, more flexibility, more … I don’t know. Something. It’s hard to imagine what “more” anyone could want than meaningful work, but the trenches are a really tough place to be right now. 
     
    As I read your post, I found myself wondering what your answers to this tough problem are. It is so lovely to celebrate the reasons TO be a teacher, since there are so many articles out there explaining why people have left, but I wonder whether the reasons you cite are enough, even for someone who has gotten lots of praise from outside the classroom, as well as the forever love of the students inside it. I would love to hear your take on why even lots of people who continue to regard themselves as teachers move outside the classroom into leadership or consultancy. 
    • JustinMinkel

      All the right questions

      Megan,

      I think you nailed the key reasons people leave teaching, especially Gen X/Y teachers.  I also think that what makes it wonderful makes it hard to sustain when you have kids, or even other time-intensive interests–you want to do right by your students, and you can always do more in terms of the time and thought you put in.  I have twice taken either paternity leave or a sabbatica from my district, and while I knew I would love the additional time for reflection and being with my kids (ages 2 and 5), I didn’t realize how critical the mental part would be, too–that I could focus on playing in the park with my toddler son without the churning backwaters of the myriad tasks and needs I would be meeting the next day.

       
      That said, I do plan to keep teaching for decades.  The reason I became a teacher was Bill Van Slyke, a 4th-grade teacher I worked with for 3 years during college.  He had the same brilliance and fulfillment I saw in my professors, but he also had something they didn’t have: balance.  He was a wonderful and present dad to his son and daughter, and in summers he dug garlic on his farm and had dinner with friends.  I know everyone criticizes our agrarian teaching calendar, but selfishly I like the agrarian nature of the cycles of work and rest. 
       
      Your question about opportunities for leadership/other professional fulfillment gets right to the heart of it; both my “professional homes” as a teacher (CTQ and NNSTOY, the National Network of State Teachers of the Year) have put the idea of teacher leadership through hybrid roles/career continuums at the center of our professional work.  I think lack of those opportunities is a huge part of the attrition in teaching.  NNSTOY’s Executive Director said once that from 1972 to 2002, her three decades as a librarian, her duties did not change in any way, despite how much better she had become and how much she had learned. 
       

      Thanks for asking all the right questions.

  • Bonnie

    Exactly!

    Justin, 

    You’ve named the attribute those teachers that stand the test of time have in common: love for their students. It takes a special kind of person to persevere through all of the new standards, assessments, hoops and paperwork that gets passed down every year from the ivory towers of education, yet can remember the reason we teach! It’s the kids! Those precious hearts and minds walking into our classrooms that all need special attention from us. They remember the teachers who cared and taught them well…they go back to visit those teachers in their rocking chairs. 

    • JustinMinkel

      You’re right, Bonnie.

      You’re right, Bonnie, and one of those rocking chair visits outweighs months of frustration with the paperwork and hoops.  It’s similar with parenting, I think–one sweet word, smile, or tender moment between brother and sister can immediately erase built-up sleep deprivation and frustration from all the days leading up to that moment.

      Always love your insights!

  • Alex Kajitani

    Teachers Live Forever

    Great post, Justin.  It’s amazing how beauty fades, machines fall apart, and money runs out, but it’s really only our thoughts and ideas that can live on.  When we teach, we live forever.  It seems to me that your kinder teacher, Al Gordon, is well on his way to eternity!

  • BillIvey

    Love

    Sometimes, the enormity of the task I’ve taken on overwhelms me – I love the students so much and want so badly to do right by them that I feel I could never live up to my own expectations. The flip side of that, of course, is that they matter so much to me I can’t imagine life without them, and that keeps me going through the year and coming back year after year (my first gig was as a Teaching Assistant at UMass in 1981).

    Experience in itself, of course, is no guarantee of increased effectiveness. Rather, it is a guarantee of the opportunity to become increasingly effective. And the vast majority of us who are motivated by our love for the kids do everything we can to take advantage of that opportunity – and reap the benefits.

    I’m certainly an advocate for the notion that teachers should be paid what they deserve (especially now with a kid in college!). And yet I also believe that the kinds of benefits you listed above are more important in keeping me in the classroom than any single other factor. Thank you for writing this piece. I shall be sharing it, for sure.

  • JustinMinkel

    You have heart, Bill.

    Bill, the dedication to students and joy in their company (as well as the craft of teaching) that you articulated so beautifully is a huge part of why I continue to love our job and feel hopeful about the profession–colleagues like you.  Your students are fortunate to have you.

  • Sara C.

    Tearing up here

    Love your response to the classic, “Do you remember me?” question. It’s still true, even if you’ve forgotten their name. This is a great article that addresses–in a positive way–the controversy right now over programs like TFA and their impacts on our students and schools. Of course there are going to be some great people go through those programs and impact students for good, but how much more valuable are teachers who are willing to commit to this career and go through the long, tough learning process over time. Thank you for presenting this topic in this way!