I recently met up with a dear childhood friend who is an excellent teacher. She said she is tired and taking a break next year. She plans to return to the classroom after a bit of time off. I hope she does come back to teaching; I will understand if she doesn’t. The last two years have been rough for employees in many industries, leading to what some call “The Great Resignation”. Teachers are among those who have been stretched to adapt during difficult times, and for many it is just too much. Schools are being rocked by staffing shortages as thousands retire or leave the profession, even mid-year. But not all of us are calling it quits. Many teachers WILL return to the classroom next year, including myself. But why?
Each teacher planning to return has their own unique set of reasons. Mine include a love for the craft, the exhaustion of other options, and the fact that, on the whole, I am happy. Harvard professor and social psychologist Arthur C. Brooks says that the “macronutrients” of happiness are enjoyment, satisfaction, and meaning. Despite the challenges of teaching in a pandemic, as a middle school English and math teacher at an independent school in Washington, D.C., I still have all three.
I am able to still find joy at work by meditating daily, setting boundaries around my time and energy, and cultivating flexible expectations of myself and others. Deep breaths don’t solve structural problems, but they contribute to a clearer mind and lower blood pressure. Then I can focus on the best part of teaching, which is spending time with kids. Working with young people also continues to bring me great satisfaction. I have been in this long enough to see the effect a teacher can have on a child. I’m just getting good enough to consistently make decisions that lead to success for my students, even while being creative and trying new things. In terms of meaning, my “why” is stronger than ever. The world is a hot mess. I have the opportunity to counter the chaos of these times and build classrooms that prompt children to be tolerant, reflective, hopeful, and empowered. Enjoyment + Satisfaction + Meaning. By many measures I am a “happy” teacher in 2022. I am also paid what I feel my work is worth. Unfortunately, my experience is rare.
I am appalled by the reports of unbearable challenges with students, families, supervisors, and governing bodies. Whether it is overcrowded class sizes, hallway fights, disrespectful emails, unsupportive admin, or banned curriculum, I understand why so many teachers have been left with no choice but to walk away. If I was in their shoes, I think I would too.
In contrast, I work at a selective private school that allows me to set boundaries, focus on creative curriculum and instruction, and watch my students succeed. It is cocooning in this environment that has made teaching sustainable. Our students arrive ready to learn and with their basic needs met. Their families are invested and involved. We do not have to answer to a disconnected school board or state legislature. Our classes are small, and we have the supplies we need. Our community is diverse and aligned with my views on equity and inclusion. I am treated as a professional, and my opinion is respected by both administrators and parents.
Now, there are public schools that offer similar experiences to mine, and not all private schools are havens, especially for teachers of color. We have difficult families, stressed out students, and pretty high turnover right now too. For me, staying in a cocoon is intentional. I love being a teacher, and I am protecting my career. It is easier to be a steady rock when the skies are clear. I wish every teacher could be placed in an environment where they could thrive. I wish schools were not pushing us out and taking experienced professionals away from the kids who need them. The end result of these deepening differences in teacher experiences is greater inequity in the education American children receive. The profiles of the students who will suffer the most are known. Schools don’t work without teachers; this is a Jenga block that could cause the tower to crumble. There are people who want that to happen.
I will continue teaching because my current school is a place where I can continue teaching. I am having the experience I signed up for. But in order to retain teachers (or recruit new ones) my experience needs to not be surprising or rare. Teachers who are respected, treated fairly, and paid appropriately need to be the norm. I am keeping a light on for those who are leaving. May the conditions arise for you all to come back! I am committed to doing what I can as a colleague, educational advocate, and public school parent. If we want America’s education system to have good options that are accessible to everyone, then retaining and supporting experienced teachers is something we should all be working towards. The situation is urgent, and the time is now.