"I teach in hopes of turning content into rocket ships--
Tribulations into telescopes,
So a child can see their true potential from right where they stand."
Excerpted from "Lift Off," by Donovan Livingston
Earlier this year, newly minted teacher Donovan Livingston won national acclaim for his passionate poem at the Harvard Graduate School of Education convocation. Even as he called out racial injustice in education, he celebrated teachers, saying they have the power to "inspire galaxies of greatness for generations to come."
The vast majority of people who have chosen to be educators would agree. Overwhelmingly, teachers say they're motivated by the chance to change a child's life for the better. In the Primary Sources survey of 20,000 U.S. teachers, 98 percent of respondents confirmed that teaching is how they make a difference in the world. They dream of building those galaxies of greatness, one bright-eyed girl or boy at a time.
Being a teacher is more than just a job: It is a calling. Yet, for all their hopes, aspiration, and dedication, at least 17 percent of teachers leave the profession within the first five years. And while the reasons for teacher dropout vary, the Primary Sources survey holds a clue: More than a quarter of respondents don't think teachers are well respected in the community where they teach.
Low pay is not the only way that teachers are made to feel devalued or disregarded in what author Frank McCourt, a 30-year veteran of New York City public schools, once described as "the downstairs maid of professions." Too often, the climate of the school itself takes a devastating toll--creating an insurmountable gulf between a new teacher's expectations and experiences.
In his groundbreaking 1975 book Schoolteacher, Dan C. Lortie highlighted how U.S. educational practices contribute to isolation, with each teacher working behind closed doors, cut off from one another and from support. You can feel the anguish in this journal entry from a first year teacher, writing in 2001: "Now I am all alone. I teach in my room alone, I plan at home alone, I execute plans alone, and I reflect alone." Many teachers confront a complex set of challenges, from overcrowded classrooms to students with social, emotional, or behavioral difficulties to being expected to teach multiple levels of ability simultaneously. Yet, they rank "not enough time collaborating with colleagues" as one of their top two concerns.
Physical and operational isolation is compounded by psychological stress. We often hear about bullying in schools--but students aren't the only ones at risk. One study by the American Psychological Association revealed that 80 percent of participating teachers were victims of harassment at school--by parents, students, administrators, or even fellow teachers. In Canada, 60 percent of teachers say they have seen students verbally abuse other teachers. Meanwhile, one analysis of news reports found 269 incidents of students caught with guns in U.S. schools last year. How can a teacher feel fulfilled in their calling, against a backdrop of insecurity and fear?
In my last post, I explored how negative school climates are fertile grounds for social isolation. This problem doesn't just afflict young people; it burdens teachers, too, risking a downward spiral of reciprocal suffering and neglect. But, by the same token, a safe, supportive, kind environment can spark a virtuous cycle, enabling teachers and students alike to perform at their best. If we want good people to go into teaching--and stay--then we need to provide a nurturing school climate, with a standard of care, compassion, and support that enables teachers and students to grow together.
One innovative program, "Leading Together," sponsored by the Center for Courage & Renewal, focuses explicitly on enhancing the quality of adult relationships within a school community, based on the premise that psychological safety, teamwork, collaboration, and mutual trust are the foundation of a school's ability to improve itself. The program brings principals and teacher-leaders together to become more self-aware, to reflect on their successes and challenges, and to reinforce their sense of shared purpose.
Another inspiring model is the Prince's Teaching Institute (PTI) in the U.K. PTI offers subject-specific networks where teachers are encouraged to share lesson plans, ideas for activities, and general tips and tricks of the trade. New teachers can take classes to deepen their subject knowledge, and receive one-to-one consultations from more experienced educators. It's a great example of how we can support teachers, re-ignite their passion, build connectedness and show caring, to the benefit of teachers, students, and the school community as a whole.
In a nationwide survey of American public school teachers conducted by CASEL (Collaboration for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning), 82 percent of respondents said they would like more training on social and emotional learning (SEL). Educators know that interpersonal skills such as discipline, empathy, responsible decision-making, and conflict resolution are indispensable to student success; and, moreover, that teaching SEL in schools improves students' relationships with their teachers and with each other.
Not every school, community, or country has resources to spare for implementing extra teacher training; many struggle just to provide classroom supplies and books for students.
But as societies and citizens, we don't need to wait for budgetary priorities to change in order to rethink what it means to honor teachers and their profession. Beyond celebrating individuals with Teacher of the Year awards, let's recognize the work that all teachers put in, every school day of every year. For students to thrive, we need to provide better care and support to every member of the school community, a better sense of being valued, of being connected and appreciated as a whole person.
Instead of apples, let's offer teachers the fruit of recognition, reciprocity, and respect.