Following a recent NPR story about the growing teacher shortage, a follow-up question was asked: “Why do teachers stay in the profession?” To me, this question is not as easily answered as the question of why teachers leave the profession. I think that to answer this, one has to look at the dynamics of relationships. I believe that some of the most common reasons people give for staying in relationships can offer some insight as to why teachers stay in the profession. A word of fair warning – not all of the reasons are flattering. However, we can hope that as unflattering as some of the reasons for staying may be, the reason that the majority of us stay is the best of the five.
Type One – The Gold Digger
Okay, I’m only kind-of kidding. Obviously no one goes into teaching to get rich, but let’s get this one out of the way. We have to admit that there are a small number of teachers (I would argue less than one percent) who get in and stay in for entirely the wrong reasons. Gold diggers enter into a relationship in order to take full advantage of the benefits while investing very little of themselves. Unfortunately, some teachers do go into the profession for the wrong reasons. Maybe they want the same schedule as their children, summers off, tenure, or retirement benefits. These teachers, as you can imagine, are the least inspiring. They invest little time in planning, give mostly objective textbook-based assignments that are easily assessed (think: Scantron City), and leave students with almost no impression other than, “Oh yeah, I forgot about him/her.” I have had the unfortunate experience of having one such teacher. That’s one out of the approximately 105 teachers I have had since kindergarten. The thing was, all of the other teachers knew it, and they couldn’t stand her. They resented their students being taught by someone who was clearly there just to pick up a paycheck until something better came along.
Type Two: The Abuse Victim
These teachers fell in love with the idea of teaching. They were lured in by the promises of important work and their hopes of making a difference. Little by little, they felt the politicians, the administrators, the parents, the paperwork, and even, at times, the students, push those hopes farther and farther away. They feel isolated and helpless, scratching their heads to figure out what they did wrong. They stay because they think that things might get better, that creativity might come back into their schools, that the powers that hand down impossible mandates will realize the error of their assessment-crazed ways, and that the parents, the students’ first teachers, will make education a priority in the home. They hold onto hope even though in some places it no longer makes sense for them to do so. Like victims of abuse, they are stuck in the cycle and spend most of their time wondering what is wrong with them. They think, “If I just work a little harder, if I just take this one extra professional development class, if I just hang on a little bit longer, then things will get better.” Sound familiar? These teachers stay because they fell in love with something that no longer exists for them, but they hold onto the hope that one day, things will be good again.
Relationship Type Three – The Caretaker
These teachers became teachers because they are naturals when it comes to caring for and nurturing others. They know that children need champions who will believe in them and care about their well-being when, in many cases, no one else does. They stay because they feel responsible to their students, often at the expense of their own needs. These teachers spend large portions of their miniscule paychecks to buy classroom supplies. They hold fundraisers, write grants, coach teams, conduct home visits, counsel their students, and even feed their students. They stay because they know that their students need them. They stay because they worry about their students long after the school day is done. They stay because when they think of leaving, they wonder, “If I leave, who will take care of them?” Like caretakers in any relationship, these teachers are at risk for burnout, but they keep plugging because they care about their students’ welfare as much as, if not more than, their own.
Relationship Type Four – The Settler
These teachers, to me, are the ones who get left behind, either by circumstance or by a conscious or unconscious tendency towards mediocrity. While a few, arguably, should find different careers, I belive that far more simply lack leadership, peer support, and direction. Some teachers settle on careers in education because they do not know what else to do. Others start out with high hopes but are not given the support and training needed to make them effective educators, and so they settle into a career of mediocre teaching. Still others like the coaching and club aspects of education, so they teach in order to be a part of that dynamic. This does not mean that settlers can’t have a happy teaching relationship, but it does mean that they will need to put forth more effort in order to do what is best for their students. I think that these teachers don’t necessarily believe they are settling; at least, they don’t admit it. However, they do often have staying power, and sometimes that stubbornness can make them a force of stability in schools that might otherwise have high turnover. With proper leadership, they might even fall in love with teaching.
Relationship Type Five – Love at First Sight
These are the teachers that had no choice. They were born to be teachers. They grew up loving school, playing school, and dreaming of the day they would teach in their own classroom. They love planning lessons, are always eager to learn and talk about education, yet relish the 15 minutes of quiet they get each morning before the seven or more hours of nonstop interaction with young people. They are energized by their students even when they are exasperated with them. They see every day as an opportunity to try new ideas, to learn from their students, and to try to reach the students they have not yet reached. The thing is, I do not know a lot of love-at-first-sight couples, but I know a ton of love-at-first-sight teachers. In fact, I know far more of them than any other type of teacher. I’m not gonna lie – these teachers do not live in some delusional utopia. We know that the system is broken, that students are disillusioned, and that the national testing culture is detrimental not only to our students’ well-being, but to the very foundation of their education. Still, we can’t help ourselves. We stay because at the end of the very long school day, at the end of a very long school week, at the end of a very long school year, we are already excited about doing it all over again in the fall. And like those love-at-first-sight couples, we believe in that syrupy sweet notion that each new year will be even better than the last.