THE BLOG
08/18/2014 06:02 pm ET Updated Oct 18, 2014

How to Solve the Teaching Crisis (Or at Least How to Start)

Pixland via Getty Images

When I left my first teaching job, it took me a few years to realize why I felt a weight on my shoulders when I thought about the experience. I felt a reluctance that I couldn't name, a hesitancy to commit myself as a teacher again. I know all too well the massive commitment that teaching requires- to make a difference, to be competent and beyond competent, requires an emotional resolution, a devotion of time and resources and integrity.

I took a summer job at a school that interested me. I saw it has a way to 'try out' the school, to see if it was a mutually good fit, as well as to give me some more job experience. But I was surprised at how happy I felt at work- I made friends, executed a writing program I was proud of, and, most importantly, felt supported by the school community, including the administration.

When the principal asked me later in the summer if I was interested in applying for a full-time position, I excitedly said yes. I hadn't known if I was ready until that moment, but I also knew I'd found what I'd been seeking for the last four years: support.

I am sure this applies to many, if not all, jobs, but in my experience it is a huge deal in the education field. If you do not feel safe as a teacher -- not just physical safety, as that's a whole different blog entry -- in terms of having an administration who believes in your strengths and abilities and is willing to invest in you, then your job is a lot harder and less effective. What I realized after my summer job was that I loved having an administration that communicated with me, offered me challenges that played to my strengths, sought to get to know me, and made time for me and my professional development. It is a great feeling to have your principal or supervisor communicate to you that they want to invest in you and see room for your growth. I realized these feelings had been few and far between in my first job, and one of the things that had mentally blocked me from seeking a position back in the classroom sooner. Having an administration that criticizes your weaknesses rather than plays to your strengths, which sees themselves as your monitor rather than your partner or investor- these are toxic seeds in the education garden. What sprouts is administrators who can say buzzwords but who don't put themselves on the line, who can point out weaknesses in others but who you can't hold a mirror up to, who value certain things (like test scores) over their teachers. It is freeing, as a teacher, to break free from the shackles of a principal who does not support you. It is empowering to remember your strengths and to find an administrator who sees them, too.

In Tom Rath's book, Strengthsfinder 2.0, Rath writes about studies which demonstrated that people with the "opportunity to focus on their strengths every day are six times as likely to be engaged in their jobs and more than three times as likely to report having an excellent quality of life in general." Rath explained further the impact of having someone at work that focused on your strengths, rather than weaknesses or even ignoring you altogether. It is amazing the sheer impact of negativity on engagement.

It is relatively well known that 40-50 percent of new teachers tend to quit the profession within five years. The debate as to why has waged for a while. I live in North Carolina, which certainly has seen its fair share of education debate, particularly in the oft-(and duly) criticized McCrory administration. Is it teaching standards and Common Core and tenure and pay and No Child Left Behind? But the study published by Alliance for Excellent Education and New Teacher Center this year pointed at something else entirely: inadequate administrative support and isolated working conditions. This changes the game entirely: instead of blaming educators' commitment, we now have a tangible look at the lack of support teachers often get. It's not just a question of training -- I have a Master's in Education and constant professional development. But rigorous training only gets you so far as an educator. It's the reform that focuses on support that I believe will really make a difference. With the implementation of mentors, ongoing positive contact with administrators and supervisors, and a focus on incorporating teachers' strengths (such as offering grants to teachers), teachers might feel less isolated and more appreciated. A checks-and-balance system to insure that teachers are being invested in, rather than monitored, would be a great way for a school to show their teachers that they matter. Efforts should be made with veteran teachers, too, not just new teachers, especially in a state like North Carolina where the General Assembly actively signals that veteran teachers are not valued.

Too often our society operates according to what Rath calls the path of "most resistance" -- we focus on overcoming challenges, on bringing up that lowest grade, on fixing our weaknesses. What if, instead, we focused on our strengths, and invested in areas where we have the most potential for excellence? I am lucky that I have parents who invested in my innate strengths, rather than focused on the bottom line or improving my weaknesses. If administrators at schools did this with teachers, imagine the trickle-down effect: would teachers be more likely to help students capitalize on their innate talents? Would our focus on improving that lowest grade finally take backseat to celebrating the excellence that was achieved? Would school structures and careers shift? A person who feels appreciated always does more than what is expected. What if we could have the teaching careers we desired, in roles that played to our strengths and interests? Would that take significant apathy and active disengagement out of the equation? What if instead of focusing on what teachers do wrong and challenging their competency, we shifted our language to include teachers' strengths? How would that impact student performance, student psychology, and even curricula?

I hope the movement to reform how we support teachers continues, because it seems to suggest we will also get the most bang for our buck: it is a cost-efficient way to make a very big difference. The turnover rates, including teachers moving to different states seeking better conditions, become expensive. We can retain teachers simply by investing in them (I'm talking about giving room for growth, for empowering them, for challenging them, for setting them up for success rather than failure). It may seem easier to do in some schools than others, but every school can benefit from an increase in hope, kindness, and strength-finding. So often we are focused on school budgets and No Child Left Behind and Common Core, in having politicians make decisions about schools, that a lot goes unsaid. We don't talk much about how even at kindergarten, gender roles are pushed, that the prison and poverty pipeline can begin in elementary school, that when we talk about our failing schools, what we really mean is that we are failing our students, and those students really, really need us. I am still a newbie in many ways, but I feel that I have a tremendous advantage. I understand what a positive work environment is to me, and I have found it. When my school supports me, I am empowered to make a difference with my students.