Beyond the "I quit" narrative: What powers persistence in teaching?

07/06/2016 12:15 am ET Updated Jul 06, 2017

"Why I quit teaching" has become a social media meme, manifesting as viral narratives of dedicated educators leaving the field. Many condemn the overreach of standardized tests and other political instruments in schools and classrooms. Others disclose how taxing it is to work 60-hour weeks with youth and adults who are allegedly indifferent, entitled, or both. And in a twist, a few claim that they are so passionate about teaching, they simply had to leave, given how various forces - from school privatization to technology fetishes to the condemnation of teachers for all of society's failures - have corrupted what they love. Some of these narratives are thoughtful and nuanced; others lure readers with "the one reason I left teaching, and it's not what you think!" clickbait.

We know that the struggles against resource inequities, unsubstantiated policy reforms, and public hostility toward teachers and teaching are real, daunting, and demeaning. In light of these struggles, we wondered why some educators choose to stay in the field, while others do not. We asked this question of 20 practicing teachers who find the "I quit" meme plausible but ultimately problematic, and not especially representative of their experiences. Initially, we imagined the results to serve as counternarratives to quitting. But as we sorted through and discussed the teachers' responses, we found a common theme that needs to be publicized and positioned alongside the "I'm quitting/I'm staying" dichotomy: teaching is a deeply, unrelentingly, and publicly intellectual endeavor that requires human investments to realize human impacts.

"Nonsense," comes the conventional rebuttal. "The struggles you just identified and the cognitive overload associated with serving so many people's demands have turned teaching into an unintellectual occupation." On the contrary, based on the feedback we received from teachers who stay, we would argue that their intellectual work is absolutely essential to understanding and strategically confronting the challenges of public education in the present. Intellectual teachers are not dispassionately cerebral and individualistic. Rather, they are tenaciously purposeful and social in the ways they reason through and respond to the complexities of their profession. These purposeful ways of thinking and acting are means not only to address technical obligations, like fulfilling the scope of a curriculum, but also to identify problems and solutions that stretch the boundaries of what teaching entails.

In what follows, we name four important characteristics of teaching as a human-intellectual endeavor, gathered from our discussions with 20 non-quitters working in different kinds of schools, in various states, with a wide range of experiences. From here forward, we represent their collective points of view using teachers' accessible first-person voices, to underscore that these ideas originate in their experiences. We hope that doing so might accomplish three things: first, to offset the popular "I quit" narrative and present a more nuanced, more constructive portrayal of what present-day teachers do; second, to demonstrate via this portrayal why teaching should be respected as intellectual work; and third, to provide people who are considering the profession with a sense of the commitments and insights that help teachers persist in the tumultuous environment of education.

We believe in kids and draw upon those beliefs to deliberately guide our actions.

Often, teaching is represented as a calling, a passion, a career pathway with a deep sense of social commitment. But what ends do those passions and commitments serve? First and foremost, we believe teaching should serve children's interests and curiosities, their discussions of new and difficult concepts, and their uses of the subject matter to understand the world. We believe that youth are inspiring and inquisitive; we believe that students' ideas are social resources for learning and teaching; and consequently, we believe that young people's input should be invited and nurtured.

This set of beliefs serves as a compass, profoundly steering how we communicate with our students and judge what kinds of interactions and materials come into our classrooms, and how. We think that youth disengagement suggests that particular strategies may not be working for students. Rather than rushing to define those students as apathetic, it is important to think critically and diagnostically about what needs are not being met, with an eye toward growing students' learning potential. Simply put, to persist, teachers must believe in kids and their capacities to impact their communities and society, and that belief must be a pillar of our intellectual efforts.  

We prefer work that is challenging and complex, and we address those challenges and complexities critically and creatively.

We persist because of, not in spite of, the variability of our profession. Students and classroom dynamics constantly change. Research on learning the subject matter continually evolves. Questions about how to exercise autonomy amidst shifting policy mandates always exist. And we find the processes of thinking and acting creatively in the face of these developments incredibly stimulating and rewarding. For example, one of us successfully encouraged colleagues in her school to rethink and broaden what counts for assessment data in light of a new emphasis on "data-driven instruction." Another addressed two ambitions - seeking instructional feedback and employing technology effectively - by using Twitter to share classroom artifacts and engage in brief dialogues about them with an administrator, in real time. Both of these examples demonstrate that solutions to the challenges of teaching usually are not ready-made; we have to draw upon our intellectual resources to make them.

Relatedly, our work involves ongoing quests for ways to strengthen learning, teaching, and schooling, daily and in the long term. We are driven by hope that the outcomes of these quests will positively impact students, our professional communities, and ourselves. The efforts they entail, such as soliciting students' honest and direct feedback on our effectiveness or discussing with coworkers how deficit-laden views of adolescents ultimately limit kids' opportunities to learn, can feel risky or uncomfortable. Nonetheless, maintaining a clear focus on the importance of such efforts and their effects on our professional decision-making helps us persist. One of us used the moon landing as a metaphor to explain the relationship between possibilities and difficulties in teaching. The mission - putting people on the moon, as an exhibition of possibility and hope - is not the same as the job - all of the complex, technical obstacles, tasks, and costs associated with enacting the mission. Yet they are inevitably enmeshed: the job enables the mission, and the mission makes the job worthwhile.

We seek out and keep company with other determined, intellectually minded colleagues.

We enact our work locally, within particular school cultures and communities. Yet we also are situated in larger associations, like professional organizations of teachers. Within these overlapping social circles, we persist by actively looking for colleagues who share similar visions for teaching and commitments to student learning, and who help us decipher and take on circumstances that constrain our work. These people may teach in our classrooms with us, down the hall, or in different school districts altogether. Regardless, teachers must pursue and nurture intellectual colleagueship, as it generally does not form simply by being in the same place with other educators at the same time. Some of us have created or joined regional teacher empowerment networks for this purpose; some regularly trade classroom observations to seek out and offer critical feedback; and others have pursued online communities in the absence of strong face-to-face connections.

Simple as it sounds, we find the company we keep with like-minded colleagues to be thoroughly enjoyable and personally fulfilling. These friendships help us persist by feeding our creative energies and motivating us to try new things; and over time, we come to take responsibility for each other's professional growth, alongside our own. Our collegial networks also acclimate us to treating teaching as a public practice, not a private one. Publicizing teaching is an important provision of advocating for new possibilities. By making our work visible - for example, by sharing students' learning products with parents, colleagues, administrators, and board of education members, or bringing professional development resources back to our schools from conferences - we generate evidentiary grounds for requesting particular resources or promoting changes in practice. And typically, we do so collectively, with our intellectual colleagues.

We are savvy political actors.

Our work happens in political contexts that shape public messages about teaching and significantly impact our schools, students, and selves. We know how paralyzing the resulting pressures can be. To avoid paralysis, we address the politics of teaching in two ways: first, by getting involved in opportunities to defend our profession and affect political activity at state and local levels; and second, by trying to sequester political influences that potentially disrupt our interactions with students. The latter requires knowing what aims and intended consequences underlie others' and our educational agendas, meeting shared demands, and strategically negotiating conflicting ones. Such negotiations exist on a spectrum from accommodation to protest, with most efforts falling somewhere in the middle - for example, using common goals language to justify our preferred approaches when they diverge from the recommendations of policy makers or school leaders. Ultimately, we know that maintaining good standing with people in our organizations ultimately advances the purpose of serving our students.

We are energized, too, by sharing our strategies with others. For instance, one of us supports talented new teachers by helping them interpret state-mandated teacher evaluation rubrics and use the rubrics' language to argue persuasively for highly effective ratings. This ability to frame the practices and impacts of one's teaching is an essential quality of teachers' intellectual work. How overt or covert we are in our political activities depends on our degrees of trust in school leaders and colleagues, and how much political capital we perceive we have in our schools. When we feel supported, we use our positions to influence important policy decisions and school practices, strengthening our senses of professional community and job satisfaction. Others in more controlled, less compromising environments persist by focusing our energies primarily on the autonomy we have in our classrooms, with our students. In other words, understanding teachers' political positions in context increases the likelihood that our risks will pay dividends.

In conclusion - now dropping the teacher-respondents' first-person voices and returning to our own - this is a turbulent time to pursue a career in the field of education. As teacher educators and education researchers, we recognize that strong forces fuel the "I quit" narratives and their close relatives, "why in the world would you go into teaching?" appeals. In spite of these forces, stories of persistence and professional satisfaction, like the ones synthesized above, can illuminate how the sophisticated intellectual and social resources from which teachers draw sustain their foci on students' and their own learning and well-being in a complex, ever-changing field.

We should mention two caveats before we close. First, we do not mean to suggest that this is a definitive portrayal of all things necessary to endure in teaching. In addition to the above characteristics, for example, positive dispositions are important - in other words, maintaining principles that failures are learning opportunities, that students are driven to learn and improve their lives, and that common goods motivate teachers' and educational leaders' work. Second, readers may disagree that the qualities we discuss sufficiently power perseverance in teaching. Such disagreements are important to acknowledge - and their reasons, important to identify - in ongoing discussions about how societies should treat their children's educators. In the end, our respondents' "I quit" rejoinders challenge simplistic notions of teaching as mechanistic, insular, and disempowered. Instead, their feedback helps us understand why, for many, teaching continues to be incredibly rewarding because of its complexity, its challenges, and ultimately, its promise.

**This piece was co-written by April L. Luehmann and Kevin W. Meuwissen at the Warner School of Education at the University of Rochester.