Why Do Teachers Stay?

We hear a lot about why teachers leave the profession. What makes them stay?

There are surveys and studies of this topic, but they focus on general tendencies and gloss over some important points. To understand what causes people to stay in the profession, you have to consider what teaching is, what the current teaching profession looks like, and how well the two match up.

Last week I received my professional teaching licenses in English Language Arts and English as a Second Language. (I had “initial” licenses up to this point.) This is no momentous event; the professional licenses aren’t effective until September, and I could have obtained them a few years ago if I had applied. Nonetheless, it felt like a crossing of some kind. I realized that I was in teaching for the long term, although I might take breaks now and then.

My story may seem atypical on the surface. I will tell it briefly in order to bring up two conditions that keep me in teaching at this point: substance and time. Teaching is an intellectual endeavor, among other things; a school that makes room for intellectual life will likely retain many teachers.

Before teaching in New York City public schools, I taught as a graduate student, as a Mellon Fellow, and in various other capacities. I came to public school teaching with a Ph.D. in Russian literature. I had already decided against an academic career (that is, at a college or university) and had worked in fields as diverse as counseling, publishing, and computer programming. In my own time, I had written stories, poems, and songs, translated poems from the Lithuanian, written computer programs, and played music alone and with others.

I was drawn to teaching because I had enjoyed it in the past and because it drew on my interests and experience. On a given school day I might be teaching my students to sing in harmony, leading a discussion of Antigone, explaining the logic of subordinating conjunctions, and speaking Spanish, Russian, and English. In this regard, I have not been disappointed. But the work was consuming and exhausting (with classroom control, paperwork, meetings, numerous mandates, and so forth), and the citywide curriculum, especially in ELA and ESL, had little to do with subject matter. There was inordinate emphasis on process (group work, creation of “graphic organizers,” use of technology, and so forth) and so-called reading strategies. No one cared what you taught (within reason), as long as you used these strategies and processes. This meant a degree of freedom on the one hand and skewed priorities on the other.

Wanting to write about this, and not having adequate time, I left teaching for two years. I wrote and published a book: Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture. Now I am back in the classroom, part-time, as a curriculum adviser and philosophy teacher. This spring I put together and co-taught a unit on the question “What is the good life?” in which students read Seneca, Chesterton, Plato, and Tolstoy. I have been shaping the philosophy curriculum as a whole and will be the philosophy teacher for the high school grades next year. I will still teach part-time but will add one day to my schedule.

There is much more to all of this, but I want to emphasize what a difference it makes to teach something interesting, to have time for my own work and projects, and to be reasonably well rested. All of this, for me, is worth the part-time salary, but it is not a viable option for many. (It’s difficult to support yourself on a part-time salary, and part-time positions are scarce.) It may not be viable for me over the long term. This leads to the larger question: how could we make teaching intellectually stimulating and physically sustainable? Such a change would attract people to the field and would likely keep them in it.

Let us look first at how schools could take the exhaustion (or at least a good part of it) out of teaching. First, principals and other leaders should distinguish the essential from the inessential. Do not come into classrooms with checklists of items that teachers must have on the wall and words you expect to hear uttered. Do not insist on pedagogical models that might not suit the lesson. Instead, focus on the subject matter, the students, and how the teacher is bringing them together.

Second, recognize that teachers cannot be and do everything. In many schools, teachers are expected, on top of their regular loads (which are already grueling) to teach electives, run evening and weekend events, call parents every day, and even go to students’ homes. In addition, they are supposed to participate in meeting after meeting: department meetings, grade-level meetings, “inquiry team” meetings, faculty meetings, and more. They are also supposed to be “lifelong learners” in the officially sanctioned sense of the term—attending professional development sessions, taking approved courses, and so on. As if that weren’t enough, they must collect “data” on their practice: lesson plans, student work, tests, conference notes, and videotapes. There’s too much crammed in here—too many activities, too many roles. In the meantime, many of the treasures of education get sent to the storage room.

What’s neglected here, besides health and sanity, is the quiet mulling over the subject and the lessons. Thinking about mathematics, thinking about literature—that’s a luxury, even a frivolity, in the current system. But if you want to attract teachers who are devoted to their subjects, then you have to make room for thinking about these subjects. Subject matter cannot be an afterthought; it cannot be relegated to the summer weeks.

In connection with that, a school needs a substantial, challenging, beautiful curriculum. The difference between teaching Plato’s Republic and teaching “reading strategies” is like the difference between taking people to see a superb  play and selling a fake theater ticket to “whatever.” Schools must not sell fake tickets to “whatever.” They must have a curriculum worth teaching and make room for teaching it.

This is only a fraction of the conditions that could keep a teacher in the field. Teachers often cite an orderly environment, parent involvement, supportive leadership, and more. I bring up curriculum, appropriate priorities, and time for thinking and mulling because they don’t get enough attention. Too many pundits enjoy postulating that if you just paid teachers enough or dangled bonuses before them, you could get the best ones into the classroom and keep them there. They forget that teachers don’t want to sell their souls—or, for that matter, their minds.

Scaffolding or Teaching?

There has been uproar recently about teaching prescriptions arising from the Common Core State Standards. In a guide for publishers, David Coleman and Susan Pimentel (the main authors of the standards for English Language Arts) discourage teachers from engaging students in “pre-reading” activities. Students should focus directly on the text, without distraction. Teachers may provide “scaffolding” (that is, necessary information or other instructional support) but should not do anything to replace the students’ actual reading. Coleman and Pimentel revised the guidelines in April in response to criticisms and concerns. But the revised version still assumes that an informational lesson or the offering of insight is “scaffolding.”

Not all direct instruction is scaffolding, though. The very term “scaffolding” implies that students should ultimately be doing the work on their own. Teachers provide temporary support to help them get there, then take it away when they don’t need it any more. For instance, a teacher might provide vocabulary words and their meanings, then provide the words and have the students look them up, then have students identify and look up words on their own.

But when  we study literature, our independent reading is only part of what we do. We learn, also, from classmates and the teacher. Their insights add to our own. In college and graduate school, the professor is supposed to offer insights into the text. This isn’t “scaffolding.” This is teaching and scholarship.

As students advance in a subject (let’s continue to consider English for now), two things happen at once. On the one hand, they become capable of handling the material independently at a certain level. On the other, they come to recognize that there’s more to be grasped. Certain kinds of instruction do indeed “scaffold” the material to help the students gain basic understanding. Other kinds take them beyond that basic understanding. The categories overlap, of course.

So the question becomes: what are we teaching? There’s a difference between literacy and literature instruction; the one focuses on reading; the other, on interpretation of specific works. In the elementary years, literacy may be the focus. Students read across the subjects and build knowledge along the way. They reach a point where they can pick up a book, read it with little help, and answer questions about it. Teachers should give them essential background information so that they ultimately won’t need such help. But as they advance through the grades, the focus of English class moves toward literature. The point now is to help them see things in a work that aren’t obvious even after a careful reading.

Given the differences between literacy and literature study, where do “pre-reading” activities (activities that prepare for the reading) come into play? When should they be avoided? Certain kinds of “pre-reading” activities distract and deflect from the text, no matter what the level. I have seen lessons that did everything but delve into the book. Students looked at the picture on the cover, made predictions about the text, connected these predictions to their own lives, and on and on. I saw a lesson on Maya Angelou’s poem “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me” where students spent most of the time making lists of things that scared them. I have seen “genre” lessons—even in first grade—where students learned to determine a book’s genre and make guesses about its content before reading it. (I have seen similar activities, albeit a little fancier-sounding, in some graduate school courses.) Often I have wanted to say: “For crying out loud, let’s read the book!”

But information provided by the teacher can be interesting and helpful, even essential. Many works assume knowledge on the reader’s part, so it makes sense to give students this. I assume that the original audience of Homer’s Iliad knew who Athena was and where Troy was. They also understood, at least instinctively, what dactylic hexameter was; they grasped not only the story line, but its cadences. Why not give young students (and older students) such an entrance into the reading? If students already know their Greek mythology, why not revisit it? And if the teacher knows Greek, why shouldn’t she recite a little of the original Homer for them? Wouldn’t that give them a sense of its sounds and rhythms?

Some information may not be essential but may bring students farther into the text. This spring, when teaching Leo Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich to tenth graders, I brought in a passage from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. I wanted the students to consider Aristotle’s idea of virtue as a mean, then look at the “happy mean” of Ivan Ilyich’s life and consider why this is so different from the sort of virtue that Aristotle describes. Granted, the students could have read Tolstoy’s story without the Aristotle passage. They would even have understood that Ivan Ilyich’s “happy mean” was not so happy. But the juxtaposition with the Aristotle gave them a greater sense of Tolstoy’s irony and of Ivan Ilyich’s miserable situation. I would not call this scaffolding.

Nor would I call “scaffolding” what my college professors have taught me. I remember reading Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Nose” for the first time, in Russian. The professor pointed out the skewed logic as she read passages aloud and laughed herself to tears. We were all capable of understanding the Russian text. But she pointed out Gogol’s subtle logical tricks and wordplay—things that made us pay all the more attention. Yes, I would have enjoyed Gogol even without this instruction, but it was this practice of listening to certain passages, hearing her comment on them, reading them again to myself, and thinking about them some more that made me fall in love with his work. I ended up writing my dissertation on Gogol.

So, we have two complementary truths, two aspects of education. One is that schools should bring students to a point of independence. Another is that the independence is fullest and richest when we continue to learn from others. The Common Core State Standards, and education policy overall, should acknowledge this latter truth.

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