It’s not about tireless self-sacrifice and trying to make a difference in a few kids’ lives. It’s about toppling the status quo and rebuilding public education from the classroom out.

We were finishing up a team meeting. Actually the meeting, as a meeting, was long over, and we were discussing the state of the profession. The conversation turned to whether we recommend teaching as a career to young people. My colleagues were adamant that they discourage people from entering the profession. Their reasons didn’t stray too far from the usual: low pay, high stress, lack of district and state support, and the like.

Apart from their opinions, their voices pinned the needle on the teacher-martyr gauge. And distressingly, there seemed to be some ego-tripping as well.

Walking to the door I said that I absolutely recommend teaching and that I think everyone should encourage bright, young, motivated people to consider education. That now is a unique time for ….

“I know, I know,” dismissed one, finishing my sentence for me, “Young people who are dedicated and want to make a difference, and … ” Well, something like that. By then we were at the door, and as she went her way, I went mine. I left thinking that it’s not about tireless self-sacrifice and trying to make a difference in a few kids’ lives. It’s about toppling the status quo and rebuilding public education from the classroom out. And that will take growth-minded teacher leadership infused with a new kind of new teacher – one inclined by disposition to find and work for solutions to the systemic problems at the root of our frustrations.

The argument also reminded me of my entry in the Goldman Sachs Essay contest in 2012. The prompt was how to bring America back to the leading spot in education. (CTQ’s own Cheryl Suliteanu won with an essay on community schools.)

My essay, Rebuilding Teachers to Rebuild the Nation, argued that the systemic problems we face are exactly the kind of problems that bait and move to action the best of minds of any generation, particularly at the pivot points in history.

I wrote that:

…today’s brilliant, diverse youth are drawn to other competing endeavors that challenge the limits of their skills. They see that teachers, though respected, work in difficult circumstances with little reward. Yet, [they don’t see that] rebuilding our education system is equal to the challenge of creating the nation.

… Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. observes that the birth of America brought together a remarkable set of circumstances and a remarkable set people…These individuals had a wide diffusion of education, and were, “fearless, high-principled…unafraid of experiment, and …convinced of man’s power to improve his condition through the use of intelligence.” (The quote is from the March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman.)

I think that offering teaching, in these terms, as an option to young people like those Schlesinger describes, would illuminate new paths for them, redefine teacher, and rekindle the idealism of discouraged veterans.

Since writing that, I’ve met Anne Catena, Ed. D., a faculty member within the Program in Teacher Preparation at Princeton University, who researched reasons why people leave teaching. She found that teachers of high academic ability need to be intellectually engaged throughout their teaching career. If they do not find opportunities to assume both formal and informal leadership roles, within the first five years of teaching, many leave in pursuit of new challenges.

Dr. Catena’s remarks buttressed and expanded my view. As the teacher leader movement is gaining momentum, classroom teaching is just the start of a career teacher’s intellectual stimulation. Very early in their careers teachers can start to work on solutions to problems beyond the classroom – in teacher leader language, they can begin to lead without leaving.

I’ve seen evidence of the impact that engaging in teacher leadership can have on new teachers. There were first year teachers at the recent Arizona convening of ECET2 (Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teachers and Teaching) who, side by side with veterans, developed messages and solutions related to the issues that keep them up at night. They want to take action. For example, Katie Paetz, still a fairly new teacher with eight years’ experience, was there and announced that she is running for a seat on her local school board.

Additionally, new teachers and veterans alike make up the current cohort of the Teacher Leader Initiative. Participants in the TLI spend a year working learning about leadership and work on an issue in their current context that they want to have a solutions-oriented impact on.

These new teachers see teaching as a field in which they’ll be challenged to solve big problems and be able to leave a legacy beyond what happens in day to day practice.

The mutual inspiration between these new leaders and veteran leaders nourishes hope.

In brief, I promote teaching as a career because of the real and broad range of opportunities it provides for great young minds to quench their intellectual and idealistic urges. Beyond that I promote the career because the profession I love will fade away in a whimper without sustainable retention of new leadership talent.


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