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Why Teachers Stay

October 25, 2013

Liz Riggs, in the latest edition of The Atlantic, writes an interesting piece about teacher longevity and the factors that lead educators to stay in the classroom or leave the profession.  Let’s start with the positive: Why do teachers stay?  According to the article, “the desire to help students” is one of the biggest reasons teachers remain in the classroom despite the low pay and lack of respect we often receive.  I couldn’t agree more.

I can still remember the pain of being an adolescent struggling in school, and one of the driving forces in my career has been to make those early teenage years more bearable by getting students to see the good in themselves.  Having struggled with my own dyslexia, I am committed to developing and sharpening their academic skills to allow them to experience success.   Last year, as I explored the option of continuing to work in admissions part-time or moving back to the classroom full-time, there were two experiences that motivated me to return to teaching.

The first was with a sixth grade student, I will call him Eric, who was one of the kindest students I have ever taught.  Despite his receptivity and extreme willingness to please (“Sure, Mr. Qua, I can do that for you!”), his low self-esteem, slow processing speed, and below average receptive-language skills made learning difficult.  Worse, his deficiencies provoked tremendous bouts of anxiety.  In order to improve his ability to receive and understand verbal information, I worked with Eric early in the year to provide him with strategies so he could advocate for himself.  By the end of October, he was routinely saying, “Would you mind repeating the question so I could give you a better response” in order to hear the question again.  Additionally, to buy himself more time to think, he would ask, “Would you mind coming back to me?  I’d like to think about that for a second.”

While his willingness to advocate for himself helped him, it didn’t really address his anxiety, which got worse in all of his classes.  His parents reported, sadly, that Eric was sneaking downstairs in the middle of the night to check his work.  His teachers labored tirelessly to try to build his self-confidence, but he needed a victory to really convince himself that he could do the work.   That defining moment came towards the end of the year while reviewing for an assessment on Ancient China.  Eric worked with me for nearly a week after school to master the information and practice test taking strategies.  Amazingly, he earned an A+ and told me after class, “You know, Mr. Qua, this is the first time I feel smart.”

The second incident involved a student named Steve who also suffered from low self-esteem despite being extremely bright.  Earlier in the year, I had asked Steve who he had thought had done the best job on a project the class was working on.  While I had hoped he would pick himself, he pointed to another student, who had also excelled on the project.  I probed deeper by asking, “You both did well, so why did you point at Brad?”  “Because I’m stupid.”  I spent all year trying to build up his confidence by praising him when he did well, and small successes helped reduce the tears but he never believed how smart he was (his verbal and perceptual reasoning scores were both in the superior range).

The big moment came at the end of our Egypt unit when I asked my students to build a model of an ancient egyptian city to show me what they had learned. When I assigned the project, Steve came to me and asked if he could use Minecraft instead of making a model.  At first I was hesitant, but knowing his love for the game and wanting to reward him for his self-advocacy, I agreed.  When Steve presented his project, the other students and I were in awe of the city that Steve had created.  Not only had he mastered the material but he was able to make incredible connections between his digital city and the town in which he lived.  After everyone had finished their presentations, I asked them to point to the student who they thought had done the best job.  The entire class pointed at Steve.  So I stopped the class, and asked Steve to remember that moment from earlier in the school year when he didn’t feel so smart.  You could see from his body language that he did.  I then asked, “Well, based upon the fact that everyone chose you, how do you feel now?  Straightening up, he smiled and replied, “I feel like one of the smartest kids in the class.”

It’s been said that teaching is the toughest job you will ever love, yet each year thousands of teachers leave the profession to pursue other careers.  For those people who entered the classroom to get their summers off or to bide their time until something bigger and better came along, the benefits are not enough to compensate for the hard work required to do a good job.  It’s those educators who entered the profession hoping to change the world that stay because making a difference in the lives of students like Eric and Steve is what makes grading papers, correcting tests, and putting up with adolescent angst tolerable.  In fact, it makes leaving the classroom almost impossible.

So the question is: What makes you return to the classroom each September?  (Come on people – I’ll give a free beer to anyone that leaves a suggestion.  I’m dying to get the conversation going!)

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