Throughout the year we’ll be featuring stories from Hope Street Fellows in Utah. Thank you for sharing your story, Michele!
There are so many reasons to leave
The end of last year I had a sad experience. A colleague of mine who started teaching the same year I did informed me he had decided to quit the teaching profession. He had many reasons why: the work load, the constantly changing curriculum and programs, punitive teacher evaluation metrics, money, the amount of stress, lack of supports for students – and then he offered to put my name in for a similar position he was taking: a 9–5 job making almost double my current salary, but outside the field of education. I did not even think about it. I said no thanks.
Then I started thinking about why. Why do I continue teaching in my classroom? There are so many reasons to leave. At first the answer seemed simple: I stay for my students. But for my fellow colleagues who have left the teaching profession, I know this same reason (the students) made it hard, even excruciating, to leave and yet it was not enough to make them stay.
Feeling that I can make a difference for students
Then I realized the difference. I stay because I feel I can successfully teach and have a positive influence on the lives of my students. On the surface, this may seem like a slight difference, but in actuality it is significant and nuanced. There are so many factors that contribute to the fact that I feel capable of making a positive difference in the lives of my students.
Merging theory and practice in pre-service
The first factor is the teacher training program I attended. It was at a four year-university and my degree was in Mathematics with an emphasis in education. This program truly taught me the theory and mechanics of how to be an effective teacher. This degree educated me not only in a rigorous set of coursework in my field (mathematics) but also taught me in depth how to teach math concepts and the pedagogy that is the backbone of any inclusive, engaging, well-managed classroom. These classes included: child and adolescent brain development, behavior management, child and adolescent psychology, motivational theory, equity training, lesson plan design, differentiation strategies, and linguistics, just to name a few.
In addition to teaching theory, my teacher training program included many hours of observing master teachers and reflecting on their practice, and finally culminated with a full semester as a student teacher. I was paired with an amazing teacher who mentored me through implementing the theory into practice in the classroom. Those months gave me the foundational knowledge and experience to start on firm ground in my first year of teaching.
Finding a supportive school culture
This leads to the next factor of the success I have had in my teaching career. My first teaching position was as an 8th and 9th grade math teacher at Brockbank Junior High. I am so grateful that my first four years were at this school. The faculty that I became part of supported me and taught me so much. The district did have a mentoring program for teachers in their first three years, but this program was not very effective as it gave no extra time for my “mentor teacher” to do her mentoring or accomplish her mentoring duties. She had 7-13 new teachers to “mentor” each year. Because of this her mentoring activities ended up as mostly useless, bureaucratic, “check-the-box” activities that wasted our most precious resource – time.
What was effective and immensely helpful were the teachers in my hall and with whom I shared lunch. I discussed lesson plans, behavior management issues, and other obstacles and frustrations. My colleagues helped me reflect and brainstorm, and they lent their expertise to find solutions to problems and refine lessons that did not go as well as I had planned.
I was also fortunate that this school teamed. Every few days I was given time to meet with the same small group of teachers who had the same students that I did. During this time, we discussed students we were concerned about (for academic, behavioural, or some other reason) and my team would discuss strategies and interventions to help these students succeed, not just in my class, but in all of their classes. Being part of this dynamic, collegial network of professionals made me feel supported, successful, and part of a community. I did not feel alone or isolated. I did not feel it was entirely my responsibility to help uplift our most impacted and at-risk students.
Having a voice in education policy
The other significant reason I am not demoralized by punitive accountability measures, the ever-changing target of “proficiency” for my students, or overcrowded classrooms and a lack of funding is the support I’ve gained by becoming active in my local teachers’ union.
Rather than feeling like a victim that must hunker down and do my best to hide from the constant barrage of negativity and political jockeying that has infested our educational system, I feel empowered to be part of the conversation and solution to this ever-changing, dynamic profession. Rather than seeing the 100+ education bills each year as undermining, I see it as a challenge to stay current on best practices, engage in conversations with policymakers, and advocate for my students and colleagues.
Developing the skills to make a real difference for students
Because of all these things, I do not mind my 12+ hour days during the school year or spending my summers “off” going to conferences, reading up on the latest education theory, or spending hours refining my lesson plans. I feel that all of this is worthwhile, because though I won’t get paid in dollars, I will get paid when my students’ eyes light up with understanding, when they begin to show confidence in the math I am teaching them, or when they come back years later and give me their graduation pictures.
Caring for students is not enough – in fact it can be heart-breaking to feel you cannot give them what they need and that you do not have the ability to help them succeed. The reasons I will never quit this amazing profession is because I know I have the skills to make a positive impact on my students’ lives and I am part of a community that does not require that I carry the burden of creating a rigorous, nurturing educational experience for my students alone.