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Virginia Journal of Education
While the obstacles we face every day can seem insurmountable, the rewards of our profession are unmatched.
By Jennifer Worrell
The other day, I was speaking with a former student who was considering entering the teaching profession.
“Everyone I talk to says I should enter any profession but education,” she told me. “The thing is, I love kids, and I want to make a difference. What about you? What would you tell me?”
Her question truly gave me pause. I’m entering year 21 in education, and my career flashed before my eyes. She didn’t ask me this question on the day the student threw up on himself after gorging on cookies during our holiday party. Or on the day my guinea pig gave birth in the middle of my first parent conferences. Or on the day the kid ate the pencil right before the cows from a neighboring farm got loose during my recess time.
She asked me during a time when my colleagues and I face challenges far more complex than disappearing school supplies or nauseous students. What I wouldn’t give to go back to the days when reproducing rodents and stampeding steers were my most pressing dilemmas! How do you tell a former student to pursue education when you know she will face endless rounds of lesson planning, reluctant students, an unsupportive media, infinite data collection, and the pressures of high-stakes testing? Oh—and she gets to do it for, ahem, a modest salary. What should I tell her?
What should we educators tell any young person interested in our profession?
I looked at the young lady standing before me, her arms crossed and her eyes flashing a determination to change things. I recognized that look as the same one I had 21 years ago…and I’m still here. Some days, as I make yet another data chart at midnight, I have considered making a beeline for the private sector. Finding a profession that fits neatly between the hours of 9 and 5 tempts me as my attention-seeking toddler throws himself across my carefully organized stacks of papers to grade, scattering them like leaves. I occasionally reconsider my job choice when a struggling student cries as he sits before yet another overwhelming assessment.
And then it happens. The child fighting the test suddenly “gets it,” and his grades take off. Older students come back and thank me for helping them. Those excessive data charts begin to show growth in my students. Success changes the reluctance on students’ faces to hope. Suddenly, I’m hooked again. I realize that I didn’t choose this profession. It chose me. Teaching just won’t let me get away.
What of these young, born teachers, though? How do we stop the challenges of education from keeping these talented men and women out of our classrooms? How do we celebrate our profession? How do we celebrate ourselves? The answers just might be simpler than we think.
Trust Us as Professional Resources
First, administrators and legislators need to listen to their teachers, value their judgment, and consider their professionalism. Allowing positive educators to take on more leadership roles from their classrooms promotes enormous self-efficacy within buildings. Teacher leaders can mentor new teachers, help make curriculum decisions, and deliver creative solutions to the time-consuming challenges of planning, data collection and assessment. Beginning teachers benefit from the listening ears of a more experienced, but non-evaluative, colleague. An upbeat teacher leader will help newer educators problem-solve instructional issues, manage time and prioritize tasks.
I remember a day when I was feeling particularly overwhelmed during my first year of teaching. My own mentor gently pointed out that letting go of my need to create interactive bulletin boards with moving parts might make my life a lot easier.
Teachers tend to be creative beings, whether they are creating mechanical bulletin boards out of cardstock or solving a school-wide problem. When principals recognize their teachers’ individual abilities and give them a voice in school decision-making, morale improves. Our administrator often schedules time in our meetings to pose an issue we face in need of a resolution. She hands out markers and chart paper for us all to brainstorm ideas. Together, we generally come up with a result in which we all feel invested. We also have roundtable discussions where we share ideas. Our county administrators will use our experience and expertise in particular areas to facilitate professional development tailored to the needs of students in each building.
I have been fortunate enough to always work with principals who share this leadership style. When administrators notice strengths in their teachers and help nurture those abilities, students reap the rewards. One of my first principals saw my love of language and literature. She helped me develop my ability to teach writing by leading me to books and resources that would best help students find their writing voices. She then had me teach professional development on what I was learning, strengthening my own knowledge and confidence. Before I knew it, I found myself in graduate school, and I’m now a certified reading specialist. Without that principal’s support and encouragement, I am certain I would not have returned to school.
We Have Lives, Too
Such caring for teachers creates amazing morale, but it’s also helpful when administrators remember that teachers have lives outside of education. In my current school, our teacher leaders and administrators encourage us to take care of ourselves through fun fitness challenges and other activities. We exercise together, and one teacher even leads a yoga class which our own children who stay with us after school can attend. Several of us have participated in races together, and one teacher has even completed a marathon. We take part in an annual fun run with our students to raise money for charity. We are quite a team, to say the least. What a terrific example for students!
Just as important as celebrating teachers’ strengths is trusting them to use more unstructured professional development time wisely. Giving teachers time to talk, share ideas and resources, and vertically plan creates strong teams within buildings. My literacy colleagues and I collaborated across grade levels to pool resources and plan remediation for students eligible for expedited SOL retakes last year. Our administrators gave us an afternoon off to complete the work together.
As a result, we were all invested in the success of each other’s students, and we all supported the children together and celebrated their individual growth. Such relationships generate a positive school climate readily experienced by students and parents. These bonds are the foundation for student achievement. They also produce the powerful energy that is the art, heart and soul of teaching—the vibe that wraps itself around young educators and keeps them yoked to this profession for their entire career.
We Have a Part to Play
The next part of the solution to keeping teachers in the profession lies within each of us. As educators, we cannot control the needs of the students who come to us, our administrators, our lawmakers or the media’s response to what we do each day. We can, however, control our responses. Venting is useful, and sometimes it’s necessary to our very sanity. Truth is also welcome. But do we really need to complain unendingly about education’s challenges in the grocery store check-out line? Yes, it would be great if we could afford name-brand ramen noodles. Yes, high-stakes testing makes our hair fall out, and we aren’t making enough money to buy decent hair products. Yes, it is sad that flip-flops are against the school dress code, especially the ones we can afford in the $0.98 bin. Poor us.
I believe words have creative power. The more downtrodden we claim to be, the more beleaguered we find ourselves. What if we began to own the value that we, as educators, have to society and to the future? How many times have we been at a gathering or party where others proudly shared their high-paying professions? I’ll bet many of us have responded to that situation by dropping our eyes, sighing, and saying, “I’m just a teacher.”
What legislator will vote to give a raise to professionals who don’t think their contribution to society is worth more than a sigh and droopy shoulders? What young person inspired to change the world would want to join our profession if we aren’t proud to be part of it?
No one will deny our vocation is fraught with challenges, and some seem insurmountable. Our job, though, is about so much more than data, charts and assessments. Every day we challenge young people to be better. Students see their own self-worth, abilities and potentials reflected back to them by the pride in our faces. We have the power to bring joy to a child facing dilemmas that would bring most adults to their knees. Without us, there would be no doctors, rocket scientists, engineers, or lawyers.
Who would not be proud to be a teacher?
With all that in mind, I turned to my former student, who respected me enough to value my opinion on her future career, and didn’t tell her about the challenges, the pay, the tests or the potential for rampant holiday party nausea. She knew all that.
In spite of all the negative things she had heard about our profession, education had her by the soul and wouldn’t let go. I gave her a hug and said, “Your heart will be fuller than you ever thought possible. You’re going to be a great teacher.”
Worrell, a member of the Gloucester Education Association, teaches fourth grade at Petsworth Elementary School. She was Virginia’s 2014-15 Region 3 Teacher of the Year.