How Can We Make Teaching a Career We Want for Our Kids?

Fewer and fewer people are choosing to enter or stay in a career with rigid, lockstep pay, where seniority is valued above all else and where they will be treated as an interchangeable part.
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I am a 14-year veteran public school teacher, and every year I've spent in the classroom has only confirmed that I have one of the most important and rewarding jobs in the world. Each day, I have the honor to teach curious and bright seventh-graders, and to encourage them to believe that, with hard work, they can succeed at whatever they set their minds to.

I'm a 14-year veteran public school teacher and I love my job. And yet, I struggle with encouraging my students to pursue careers in teaching.

Not because teaching is hard (it is) or because teachers don't get paid enough (we don't), but because, unless we reform our antiquated tenure system--which values seniority above all else--teaching cannot give my students the careers and opportunities I know they deserve.

Take, for example, my own entry into the teaching force. During my first few years in the classroom, I received a pink slip every single year. Sure, I was new and I had a lot to learn, but I was working hard and committed to getting better. In my early years of teaching I rarely received a pat on the back from my peers, or critical feedback, for that matter. Just pink slips.

Then, voila: three years passed, I received tenure and the pink slips stopped.

I could have been phenomenal at my job and producing great results for students during those first three years, and I still would have been pink-slipped. And I could be less than proficient at my job now, and as long as I outrank other educators at my school, I will continue to teach.

Tenure has yet to become a professional milestone for most teachers. In a survey conducted in 2008 by the Education Sector, 69 percent of teachers agreed with the statement that tenure is "just a formality -- it has very little to do with whether a teacher is good or not."

Does this kind of system inspire confidence? Excellence? Does this kind of system sound like one we want our incredibly ambitious and capable children to enter?

I don't believe my students (for the most part) are motivated by money or fame, or by the prospect of having a job that will be easy. Like many young adults today, my students want a chance to be challenged, to genuinely succeed and grow in their future careers and to be rewarded for their hard work.

They envision futures where they have choices, where they have opportunities to lead and advance in their careers, where they are celebrated for their accomplishments and supported through their challenges.

They don't envision -- nor should they -- receiving pink slips, without a good reason or helpful feedback. They don't envision being granted tenure arbitrarily, or losing their job because they were hired minutes after a less effective teacher down the hall.

I feel very fortunate to have a rewarding job at a school that I love, with colleagues who push and help me to be my absolute best. But too many teachers -- especially new ones -- don't have the support that I now have. In 2007, the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future reported that teacher attrition has grown by 50 percent over the past 15 years. In one school district, 70 percent of new teachers left the field within six years.

The reality is that fewer and fewer people are choosing to enter or stay in a career with rigid, lockstep pay, where seniority is valued above all else and where they will be treated as an interchangeable part.

We desperately need more teachers who are passionate about closing achievement gaps and committed to getting results for all children. Yet our archaic teacher tenure system deters our best and brightest--like my students--from entering the teaching field, and turns away scores of educators after just a few, pink-slip-filled years in the classroom.

That's why we must reform tenure in public schools: so that all teachers, not just those with the most seniority, have a voice; so that tenure is a meaningful and earned milestone in a teacher's career--a career that has multiple pathways and options, with opportunities for teacher-designed leadership and hybrid roles.

I'm empowering my students -- and my own children -- to want and expect futures that are fulfilling, challenging and fair. And I hope that one day soon, I'll be able to tell them that a career in teaching is guaranteed to be all that and more.

Holly Kragthorpe is a teacher for the Minneapolis Public Schools in Minnesota, a school leader for Educators for Excellence, which is funded in part by the Gates Foundation, and a teacher policy fellow at MinnCAN, an education advocacy organization whose funding can be viewed here.

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