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A Teacher Calling It Quits for All the Right Reasons

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A couple of weeks ago, Rosa Nam took to the digital pages of EdWeek to announce that she's giving up on teaching after six years in the classroom. Citing an article about teacher depression, Nam shared a few stories about her own experiences battling through the every day challenges of teaching, focusing especially on one key event that convinced her that teaching had turned her into a person she did not recognize. One day she was called out by one of her students, a kid named Albert, who perceptively noted that Nam would occasionally talk to her students in condescending ways because, as Albert put it, it made her feel "superior." Albert's comment knocked her on her heels. Because she realized he was right.

I can relate. I never had the personality (any student I have ever had will attest to this) to run my classroom "with an iron fist gripping a sledgehammer," as Nam says she often did, but there were certainly moments in my career as a high school teacher when frustration with my own lack of control over what I was doing pushed me close to the edge. Sometimes the feeling that I could not manage things effectively was immediate and visceral, but usually the frustrations I felt were of an existential nature. I knew how to keep a classroom under some semblance of control, not least of all because I understood early on that the key to managing any group of people (even 34 teenagers crammed into a trailer) is to play them off of each other.¬†I also realized that if I didn't show respect for my students they definitely wouldn't show any for me. This worked as well with the students who were not being disruptive as it did with the ones who were: being disrespectful to the kid who was being disrespectful to me, I learned quickly, not only didn't win that kid over—it destroyed my credibility with the other kids as well. I knew that, and used it to my advantage.

The frustrations that really bothered me came from somewhere else, and caused me to ask more troubling questions than "how can I get this kid to sit down and do his work?" They led to questions like: Why am I doing this in the first place? Am I making any kind of difference at all? Is the sense of ennui that I'm feeling just that, or is it something worse? Is it too late to change course and go do something else?

For the first several years of my teaching career I hit a wall—I reached a point every year where I struggled to get up in the morning and go to work, where I grappled with these kinds of questions and started searching for answers. The good news for me was that I hit the wall a little later each year: the first year, it happened before the mid-point of the fall semester (being honest: before Labor Day), but gradually the date moved closer and closer to the end of the year. Eventually I found an outlet in graduate work, but not every teacher has that solution available, and even for those that do it may not be the solution they're looking for. Still, those feelings have never really gone away—sometimes I survey the landscape of teaching and consider the challenges teachers face, and how easy it is to have weeks of progress destroyed by one casual remark from a student or colleague, and wonder if lassitude and languor are endemic to the job, no matter where you teach and no matter how comfortable you are doing it. It's estimated that teacher turnover costs us as much as $2.2 billion a year, making our collective investment in public education much more expensive than it needs to be. Is there anything we should be doing about it?

It's tempting to look at Nam's confession and jump to quick conclusions about where things may have gone awry. She mentions being involved in Teach for America, for instance, and the conventional wisdom among TFA's critics is that the training the organization provides isn't extensive enough to really prepare teachers for the classroom. That may be true in a lot of ways, but I suspect it didn't have much to do with what happened to Nam. If anything, TFA may inflate the belief in the minds of the teachers it recruits that saving kids and schools is easier than it seems, but I doubt that any training experience can fully prepare a teacher for the psychological test that teaching is today. Sure, we can talk about how difficult teaching can be, and we can go on and on about its complexity, but at the end of the day teachers have to internalize what they're hearing, and they have to figure out a way to reconcile their often very powerful desire to make a positive difference through teaching with the harsh realities of working in a job that undervalues hard work, struggles to define excellence in any meaningful way, and expects people to do more and more for (and with) less and less. I don't personally believe the best way to do that is in a crash course, but I don't doubt that it works for some people.

The fact of the matter is that people get prepared for teaching in a million different ways, and what works for one aspiring teacher won't work for another. Even people who go the traditional route are educated very differently depending on the nature of the teacher education program they enter, the quality of the teaching they encounter there, and the exposure they have to school-based fieldwork before becoming certified. Teacher education most certainly does matter, but it should go without sayng that there is no single way to do it right. The silver bullet simply does not exist.

So maybe specialized training isn't the answer, but Nam offers another clue about what may have made it difficult for her to see a future for herself in teaching: "I use data to measure my success," she wrote, "not smiles and laughter." Now, I'm no advocate for using "smiles and laughter" to measure success, either, but this statement reveals a lot, I think, about what sucked the joy out of teaching for Rosa Nam. Many new teachers seem to have been trained to focus their attention, laser-like, on things like "student performance" and "multiple measures of assessment" and "proficiency," and seem to have lost their connection to the people hidden behind the data points in the process. We can tell ourselves all day long that we see kids as multi-dimensional people, but if the focus of our work with them is always on extrapolating a data point, "differentiating" our teaching to meet their "instructional needs," or saving them from becoming "bubble kids" who are "proficient" but just not proficient enough, it's going to continue to be a struggle to actually see them that way. Who wants to work with widgets all day? Certainly not teachers, I would hope. Let's get out of that mindset as soon as we can.

At any rate, I'm not sure if Rosa Nam's commitment to teaching might have been saved if she had found a way to see her students differently but I don't blame anyone who leaves teaching for the reasons Nam gave. When you feel you've lost touch with the person you want to be it's probably time to move on, no matter what you're doing. And that's the real moral of the story Nam is telling us: sometimes it's just better to go on and do something else. We build up teaching like it's a calling and we're told again and again that we should regard good teachers with the kind of reverence that is normally reserved for religious figures, as if they have some kind of magical power (or moral power) that we can only admire and never really touch. If I had a dollar for every time I heard the words "teacher" and "hero" in the same sentence, I'd have enough to, well, hire a teacher. Maybe two.

But the flip side of that reverence is the idea that teachers, ultimately, will do what they do no matter how much we pay them, and no matter how much they have to put up with. Like a religious calling, teaching is viewed almost as a non-choice, as something people who do it well feel obligated to do even if they don't really want to. Teaching is a "gift," we are often told—and when you have a gift you have to be some kind of somebody to not be willing to use it to help others. It shouldn't be surprising, then, when people feel anguished about the decision to leave teaching, even when they know it's something they ought to do. We could go a long way toward improving teaching just by moving away from the idea that it takes a special person to do it. Rosa Nam quit for all the right reasons—because she saw her future doing something else, because she no longer felt a connection to her students or to herself, and because, well, it made her feel depressed—but it's a shame she felt she had to. This one's on us.

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