Thoughts for Teachers Who Wonder if They Should Leave the Profession

I’ve been around education long enough to see trends come, go and come back again. One thing that always returns is the discussion of teacher quality, happiness and retention.

Heightened scrutiny and reduced job security pose serious challenges for teachersThe realities and the challenges of our profession have changed dramatically in the past decade. What should newer teachers do when they meet these challenges head-on?

To put it bluntly: Should you stay or should you go?

Yes, the landscape has changed

For many years, teaching had several key benefits: heightened job security via tenure, shortened “official” work hours and generous retirement benefits. School districts used these benefits to compensate for the relatively low starting salaries (based on a 10-month employment schedule), the challenging nature of the work and an understanding that long-term teachers — with deep classroom knowledge and skill — were better for schools.

Over the past 15 or so years, though, the terrain has changed. States are struggling with the financial implications of retiree healthcare and benefits amid a steady drumbeat that our schools are underperforming (debatable, at the very least). This has made the teaching environment more intense and challenging, producing less teacher happiness, a broad shift out of the profession and a decline in those who even consider teacher-education programs at the college level.

All segments of our society are confronting the forces that have upended schools. Corporations are scaling back salaries and benefits, workers have less job security and the world is still recovering from the Great Recession.

But does absorbing this reality mean you have to walk away from the profession? I need great teachers in my district, so you can probably guess my recommendation. But if you’re still undecided, I ask that you hear me out.

Look down the road

Guiding successful, responsible children is a long-term project. Many will walk into your classroom and stay on grade level, work diligently and develop a flow to their work that makes them a positive contributor to the classroom.

But many will not. Applying a long-term perspective to their progress (It’s not too good today, but it will be better eventually) is the best approach, and it’s also the best way to manage the struggles of teaching. It helps to always do the right thing each day and to bring your very best self to your work. It’s also important to steer clear of the doom-and-gloom contingent and try not to get too caught up in the minutiae of the day.

Take it easy on yourself

I spend a large chunk of my day collaborating with teachers on the quality of their classroom performance. A key component is to have the teacher self-assess their performance and then reflect on how to improve.

Man, are you guys hard on yourselves. More often than not, I have to ask a teacher to rate themselves higher on the evaluation rubric.

Teachers do get roughed up in the national media, and every day seems to bring another report full of bad news about schools, but you need to take all that with a grain of salt. Keep in mind that the debate about schools is far more of a political battle, with different groups staking out positions based not on what is right for children, but rather what will advance their overall agenda. Yes, they’re talking about schools and their quality, but really they’re trying to score political points.

It’s hard work, but it’s good work

We all have hard days. Working with children is emotionally and physically draining, and we all occasionally end a busy day feeling tempted to run away to Bora Bora.

Yet, you need to keep in mind that hard and difficult work, especially in the service of children, is at its core good and honorable. And if I’m going to struggle with my work and its challenges, I want that struggle to be in the service of children and their futures. Nobody summed this up better than George Bernard Shaw in this excerpt from “The Splendid Torch”:

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.

I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no “brief candle” for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.

Make a life, make a living

There are no easy answers to these questions. The culture of teaching has changed and I’m not going to sit here and say that in a week, a month or a year that we’re going to return to the days of the past (which always seem brighter and better than they actually were).

The world is demanding more of us today while offering less. There’s no denying that, so each of us has to decide if we’re going to accept this new normal. I feel that those who stick with the profession and throw themselves into our good work will look back and be satisfied that they continued to serve children and their futures.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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