Listen To the Teachers Who Stay

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The narrative that public schools are difficult work environments and that teachers are under attack is becoming an increasingly pervasive one. While I know the job can be incredibly difficult and frustrating, I worry that this narrative is both incomplete and damaging.

Nancie Atwell, whose seminal book got me through my first year of teaching and still informs my practice, is one who has advanced the claim that future teachers should stay away from public schools. After becoming the first recipient of the Global Teaching Prize, she advised, "If you are a creative, smart young person, I don't think this is the time to go into teaching." She cited the Common Core, standardized tests, and scrutiny of teachers as reasons.

Stephanie Keiles, who is leaving her job at a public school to work in an independent one, wrote about how she "just can't work in public education anymore." Her widely-circulated piece cited everything from the lack of a raise to her district's requirement to post an I Can statement daily in her classroom.

It seems like stories about quitting (or never entering) public education are everywhere, and it's making me angry. The intent, I'm sure, is to bring attention to issues of concern; the reasons are often principled. While I think these critiques are certainly worth discussing, I worry these voices are overshadowing the voices of the teachers who, whether critical of reforms or not, are staying.

Teachers across the country are returning from summer vacation this month. More accurately, teachers have had a few months to attend district-mandated trainings, plan for the coming year, read and reflect, work other jobs, and hopefully get at least a week or two of actual vacation. Rather than looking for other jobs this August, the vast majority of public school teachers are actively making a choice to set their alarms a little earlier and head back to that wonderful, maddening, rewarding place that sustains them and gives them purpose.

These teachers are not leaving public schools. Many are disheartened by the lack of pay and understand why it makes people leave. Some get annoyed when they are asked to write an I Can statement or another form of learning objective on the board every day because they know it is not a silver bullet, but they recognize that defining what students will be learning and doing in class is important. Many have thoughtful critiques of standardized testing and teacher evaluation systems, but they also believe in rigorous standards and accountability.

I am sad talented teachers are leaving public education. I am worried because their narratives don't always fit my own perceptions and experiences. Mostly though, I am frustrated because the voices of teachers who are quitting their jobs just weeks before the start of school are more prevalent than the voices of teachers who are returning refreshed, rejuvenated, and ready for another year of doing their best work.

Let me be clear, teaching is a difficult and complex job no matter where you work. It can be nearly impossible if you work in a dysfunctional district, don't have the support of administrators, can't get the resources you need, or aren't given access to the right opportunities for growth. There are many things wrong with public education.

The fact remains, millions of students are returning to public schools this month and need great teachers. If we continue to celebrate those who leave, do we encourage other teachers to do the same? If we discourage future teachers from working in a public school or entering the profession at all, do we risk taking away what we know to be one of the most powerful forces in public education - the teachers themselves?

There is little hope for improving public schools without a teaching force capable of transforming them. So let's stop focusing on the teachers who leave and start focusing on the ones who stay.

I wish everyone read words like the ones that Andrea Rossin, a colleague of mine, posted on Facebook the night before she went back to school:

It seems appropriate that tomorrow, along with a new moon in the early morning, I too will be starting a fresh cycle with the advent of work. With batteries charged and my heart opening more and more each day, I can say I'm truly ready to get back to my [school] community and give it my best...To develop my classroom community around what I know to be true and inspiring in this mad world is what I'm after this year. I give thanks for this last day of reflection as I savor the end of one chapter and the beginning of another...May the changing tides carry us to our highest potentials and may our light inspire those whose worlds are cast in shadow.

Many just starting this new school year have thought about leaving. Some on more than one occasion. But most stay and continue to make public education their work, remaining true to themselves and their principles, even when those principles conflict with the approach of their school, district, or state.

It is teachers like Miss Rossin, who stays in spite of her frustrations and concerns, that we should celebrate. And it is the voices of smart, experienced critics who recognize that all is not well but stay the course anyway, that we should amplify.

Public school teachers are not paid enough. The demands on them are sometimes unreasonable. Many are still choosing to stay. Let's applaud that. With all that may be wrong, the teachers going back to school this month are one of the many things right about public education. Here's to them and the fact that they aren't leaving. No matter what you believe about standardized testing or teacher evaluation, remember that excellent teachers who choose to stay and the ones who will eventually join them are our best - and maybe only - hope for American public education.

Image credit: alamosbasement | Flickr