When New York City's mass transit workers went on strike in 2005, they fought for the benefits of TWU members who hadn't joined the workforce yet. They would not "give up the unborn." Whenever I board a bus and see the driver's MTA uniform, I wonder about her union activism. I think that it is likely that she proudly went on strike to demand well-deserved rights. Or I wonder if she decided to become a bus driver more recently because the strike demonstrated that if push came to shove, thousands would back her right for a better life.
I recently met with a group of public school teachers and education researchers investigating the severe decline in the hiring and retention of Black and Latino/a NYC educators since Mayor Bloomberg took office. While trying to dream of solutions for stopping and reversing this recent trend, we found ourselves discussing the devastating conditions teachers are working under, and the urgency many feel to escape their jobs. I have a unique perspective in my position; I talk to incredible teachers every day. I'm here to tell you: morale is low.
Educators are outraged over the worsening conditions of their students' lives: the lack of services, the racist police harassment, and the poor chances of a rewarding professional life after graduation--if they even make it that far. Talented educators struggle to stomach the crushing workloads, the soulless emphasis on data over creative thinking, and the endless barrage of attacks on their rights as workers. Why put our efforts into recruiting Black and Latino/a New York City public school students into teaching when the crisis of current education reform is surely to push them right out of the profession before they can say "tenure"?
Teaching for the long haul
Teacher turnover has a negative impact on students, particularly in schools with more low-performing and Black students. Sadly, the oft-repeated statistic is that 50% of teachers quit in their first five years.
In 2000, I got my masters in teaching because I had always loved working with children, and I was fascinated by public education as an American system. I suspected that teaching wasn't what I would be passionate about, and that my curiosities leaned more toward investigating the links between public schools, community organizing, and social change. It didn't help that my elitist education primed me with a sense of entitlement to a profession with more cachet than that of a lifelong public sector worker. I had my own classroom for just two years.
The enormity of the forces creating inequity in my classroom (from gentrification to budget cuts), in addition to my personal feelings of failure as a novice teacher crushed me and burned me out in no time. The strength needed to continue as a teacher--the commitment, the passion, the energy, the pragmatism, the creativity, and the skill--is something I observe in my former colleagues, my husband, and the Teachers Unite members now in their seventh, tenth, twentieth year teaching. It is nothing short of astounding.
That said, the idealist educators who share my passion for systemic change are often most susceptible to burnout. When I was a teacher, I joined a collective of educators committed to social justice. Our organization provided social support, but without organizational power, we couldn't directly impact the problems we were discussing. The liberal rhetoric of Teach for America, of Hollywood, of the main narrative about teaching, leads us to believe that individual teachers can lift students out of oppressive conditions just by what we do in the classroom. It is an absurd fantasy. I now live in the neighborhood I taught in, and I love running into my former fifth and sixth graders (now adults) and their families. They were the best part about teaching. Several of my students struggle to find available jobs. Among my former students are a security guard, a custodian, a shoe salesman, a scientist, a babysitter, and several young parents and college students alike. You may be shocked to hear that although I did teach them about revolutionary leaders, to my knowledge they did not go on to lead revolutions. I don't flatter myself to think I had too much impact on their lives as their teacher for a year. But when you have grand visions of the connections between school and society, and perhaps a touch of arrogance, it's hard not to put an unreasonable amount of pressure on yourself to have a transformative effect on the lives of children.
So where do burnt out, elite-educated, idealist, activist teachers go? I have no statistics to back-up my observations, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the majority of us leave teaching for academia, nonprofit policy development, grant-giving foundations, anything that lets us keep in touch with public education while finding respite in the comfort of an office job. Our work may not come with benefits or the stability of a union job, but we will never forget how much easier our lives are now that we're out of the Department of Education.
I am lucky to work with teachers who embody a new vision for what the profession could look like. They are community and labor organizers, they have thoughtful perspectives on power relations in this country and in the world, and they demonstrate a passionate approach to how children develop and learn through their lives. They state that they are working to create a movement of educator-leaders who collaborate with parents and students to abolish mass incarceration as well as transform public schools into caring communities that empower students to develop their skills to their fullest potential. Sounds impossible? They're taking this on by organizing educators as allies in the Dignity in Schools Campaign as well as developing and sharing resources that promote grassroots leadership in public education. Some of them wonder if they'll make it to retirement, but they report that their organizing work is what sustains them as teachers for the time being.
I believe that those who are considering teaching have to have these long-term insights. They have to be ready to join a lifelong battle for public education as one of its undervalued workers. I believe public education will be transformed when students see their teachers and know that, when push comes to shove, they will back them in the fight for a better life.