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Is Teaching a Marathon or a Sprint?

Reformers today increasingly stress the indispensability of passion for inspired teaching. Its place in the classroom is illustrated by the title of a popular book, "Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire" (Viking Press, 2007) by Rafe Esquith, winner of numerous prestigious awards as an elementary school teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

But passion by definition is an intense emotion that is hard to sustain over a protracted period. Most public school teachers at the high school level, for example, teach five classes a day five days a week. How likely is it that they can teach all their lessons all the time with the same fervor?

In no other field is it possible to do the equivalent. That's why live stage performances, for example, are limited to two hours or so. Anything longer brings into play the law of diminishing returns. Yet public school teachers are expected to be immune. How realistic is this strategy?

The recent death of the great Jaime Escalante serves as a case in point. He produced miracles with his students at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. He met with his students before class, after class, and on Saturdays. But he paid a price when he suffered a heart attack during the semester.

KIPP is cited as another example of the importance of passion. Teachers there are in school from 7:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. on weekdays, and are expected to be available after the school day is over via their cell phones. They also teach every other Saturday and for three weeks during the summer. How long can they maintain the pace before burning out?

Critics will argue that it's better for students to have teachers who teach their hearts out for a few years before quitting than to have teachers who temper their efforts for their entire career. In theory, that's correct. But where will we find enough new talent of that caliber to fill the ranks of the 3.2 million teachers in the nation's 98,000 public schools?

At present, about half of new teachers bail out within the first five years. This churn rate costs public schools about $7.3 billion annually, according to the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. Even in the best of times, that's not chump change, but the recession makes it prohibitive.

Surveys finding that many college-educated adults would consider teaching as a career (recruitment) do not take into account the percentage who will likely remain in the classroom after the reality of the work becomes apparent (retention). And don't forget that the turnover data were compiled before the pressure associated with testing permeated classrooms across the country.

So the next time passion is cited as the key to great teaching, it's important to put it into proper perspective. It has its limits.

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