Survive and Thrive: Why Some Inner-City Teachers Don't Leave

Given the sad fact that after only a few years, so many teachers flee inner-city classrooms for suburban schools or other professions--all that wasted time and money, career disappointment, and, of course, the educational instability for children--it seems worthwhile to examine some of the reasons why some of us stick around.

  1. Not laid off in bad economic times. This may seem obvious but it is worth mentioning. Some of the first and second and third year teachers who will lose their jobs this year because of state budgetary shortfalls - real or imagined, justified or unjustified -- may end up leaving a profession they might well have been good at. I cannot say with absolute certainty that had I been discharged during my first few years that I would have waited patiently for economic conditions to change so that I might be rehired.

  • Quitting is not an option. I mean that seriously, as in some of us have no other job prospects and no savings on which to fall back. Of course, such a position does not ensure success. In fact, it can produce an ineffective teacher clinging to his or her livelihood. But I have seen teacher stay in an urban classroom out of necessity and care enough to get better. I have also known teachers for whom quitting was never an option because they had a strong commitment to the children and community they served. Some of those teachers came from and lived in that community but not all of them and we must not marginalize those of us who live somewhere other than where we teach and/or whose ethnicity is not that of any of our students. We are all part of the human family--and that should always be our strongest identification.
  • Effective and supportive administration. Strong, fair, smart, and hard-working administrators can significantly lessen the struggles of a new teacher. Even challenging students are less challenging in a well-run school and administrative respect and support can get us through difficult times. I've been fortunate in this regard. I've had three principals in nearly twenty years and each of them believed in me and most of my colleagues and if they weren't always helpful, at least they were rarely harmful. We did have an interim principal for six weeks - between #2 and #3 - and he showed me just how destructive a petty, lazy, incompetent, and vindictive administrator can be.
  • Enjoy the work; love the students. This isn't exactly the same thing though the latter certainly helps with the former. It also helps to have a strong passion for the subject matter - along with the freedom to actually teach it. In my own experience and observations, teachers seems more likely to survive and prosper when they experience the full buy-in--involvement with extra-curricular activities, being available to assist students outside the classroom, reaching out to parents. A more human relationship with students - as is much easier in a small learning community - can also help. I've seen teachers leave the inner-city out of convenience, wanting to work closer to where they live, save money on gasoline and all that. I used to think I'd want to do that but it's never been a good time to leave - not even when some of those schools came offering me positions -- too many students I'd feel I was abandoning - and it probably never will be.
  • Collegial camaraderie and support. Because we mostly work alone, isolated with our students, we can usually endure alienation with our colleagues if it comes to that, but having a community of other teachers to whom we can turn for help and with whom we can unwind and laugh a little can make a huge difference. I've had years when I spend lunch in my classroom working or just hanging out with students and other years when I looked forward to lunch cracking jokes with my brethren. Right now, my best friend on the staff, a relatively new teacher, is vulnerable to being displaced - and that really sucks.
  • No serious mishaps. The inner-city can be a perilous place, much more so for the children we teach but also sometimes for teachers. I've been threatened, had my classroom burglarized and my personal property stolen, and was once shot at along with the basketball team I was coaching (fortunately the guy wasn't a marksman and he was firing a .22). For the most part, though, I have not - perhaps naively -- worried about crime or violence. On the other hand, most of the worst shootings haven't happened on inner-city campuses. Teachers need to feel relatively safe wherever they teach.
  • A strong philosophical belief in the value of education. Perhaps the most reliable protection against cynicism and burn-out is the understanding of how important this work can be. Student expressions of apathy can erode our sense of purpose. To an experienced teacher, such attitudes represent a challenge - a request for a little inspiration - but some new teachers may lack the knowledge, understanding, and confidence to resist the pernicious sway of I-don't-care and can start thinking that what they do with students doesn't matter. They should be reminded all the time how much it does matter. And it probably wouldn't hurt for them to read John Dewey.