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Should I Stay or Should I Go? Teachers on the Students Who Keep Them Coming Back

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Nearly half of teachers leave urban classrooms within their first three years on the job, just as they're beginning to have the strongest impact on student learning. Teach Plus aims to improve outcomes for urban students by ensuring that more students have access to highly effective teachers -- and that means finding ways to keep great teachers teaching.

Every spring, we hear from teachers across the country who are facing the same set of tough questions: Is my work sustainable? Am I making an impact? Am I being fairly compensated for my time and efforts? Starting this week, we'll be running a series of reflections -- honest, measured, and sometimes bittersweet -- from teachers who are grappling with the question of whether to remain in the teaching profession.

Gene Roundtree, Madison Park High School, Boston:

I left teaching in 2008 to pursue an Ed. M in Education Policy and Management because I wanted to influence public education beyond the classroom. During my five years as a teacher, I experienced policy -- effective and ineffective -- and I wanted to have input on issues like teacher recruitment, professional development, and social programs for students.

But while I was in my graduate program, I was confronted with the fact that teachers are the single most important in-school factor in student learning outcomes. I felt that moving away from the classroom would be akin to "running away from the fire" -- moving from a place where I was sure to have a high impact with a relatively small number of students to a place where my impact would be harder to measure.

Ultimately, I decided to return to my old school. My school had invested a great deal of time and energy into my development as an educator, and I wanted to give something back by applying what I learned during my experience at Harvard toward the improvement of our school. Secondly, I thought that returning to my classroom to try new practices and measure their effect on student learning would be the best way to measure my own growth as an educator. Lastly and most importantly, I really enjoyed my daily interaction with students. I genuinely liked showing up to work at my old school every day, and if I was going to return to a classroom, I wanted it to be that classroom.

I'm glad to be back. My students are original, stylish and creative -- they offer unique perspectives on contemporary culture and the content we cover in class. I particularly love the moments when students show themselves (and me) that they have a mind for science.

I left to become a leader in education, but teaching is leading. For me, it took leaving the classroom in search of bigger impact to recognize that the impact I was having in my classroom -- directly on students' lives -- was exactly where I wanted to be.

Kylie Alsofrom, D.C. Preparatory Edgewood Elementary, Washington, D.C.:

Just the other day, I overheard Diamond, a student who started the year far behind in reading, and her classmate Nytalia arguing about which author was better: Roald Dahl or William Steig.

This is why I am a teacher. It surprises me every day how flexible a child's mind can be. If given the opportunity and challenged in the right ways, all kids can take ownership of their learning and become passionate critical thinkers.

I never thought I would continue teaching after my second year. During the first two years of my teaching career, it was as if I was plotting the ways I would move on from my role as an educator. I was tired of seeing a system so broken that it was changing the course of kids' lives, but not always for the better.

But when it came time to leave the classroom, I could not pull myself away. Although I had my struggles, there were a lot of people within my school and the teaching profession who inspired me and showed me that with hard work, the payoff is unspeakable. I love hearing my students get excited when something clicks, or talking with one another about their favorite books and authors. I realized I would put in any amount of time and energy to hear a student talk passionately about something he or she has learned.

Students across the United States need teachers who are willing and excited to work for them, to help them defy the odds, to engage them in their learning, and to advocate for their needs. I may not be able to fix the whole system, but if I can make a difference in the lives of my of students, I would say that it is all worth it. I want to make this system work for every student that walks through my door, so that their school experience will always change the course of their lives for the better. And I could never leave that opportunity behind.

Brittany Clark, Middle College High School, Memphis:

I never wanted to be a teacher. There, I said it. I certainly never saw teaching as my calling or as a long-term career. Even when I became a high school educator, I assumed it was a stepping stone toward my goal of being a post-secondary professor. But nine years later I cannot imagine doing anything other than teach high school English.

Today, the thought of not spending every day with my students is truly baffling to me. In the past three years, there have been numerous changes that have made me repeatedly call into question my desire to remain in the classroom. My school's entire administration has turned over. I have moved from one building to another, where it rained for a year...inside my classroom. This, coupled with the changes in the evaluation system and the changes in the laws pertaining to our teacher's union, has certainly made me wonder how long I can last.

But my students continuously draw me back and give me strength. At the end of the day I love my students. I wake up every day and know I am making a difference in the lives of the children I teach.

This past year I had a student, Sean, who was incredibly bright but lacked motivation and confidence in his abilities. Sean's hard exterior drove the majority of teachers to assume he did not care about school or his future. I knew that there had to be more and spent all year showing him how much I cared about him and helping him succeed in his classes, getting financial aid, and ultimately getting a full scholarship to the local university. Sean told me on the first day of his senior year that he wasn't going to college. Now he is heading into higher education for free.

While there are moments in which I consider leaving the classroom every year, the reality is that I am truly fulfilled in my profession. At the beginning of the year I tell all of my students that our collective goal is to achieve success in the class while maintaining high standards. I continue teaching because that goal is not only for the children, but also for myself.