In recent news, there has been a barrage of videos, letters, and articles from educators around the country – explaining in no uncertain terms why they are walking away from the teaching profession. Excessive testing, an administration that isn’t supportive, difficulties with classroom management, a lack of autonomy – the reasons continue and continue. These teachers have gotten much attention for their public confessions of why they are quitting.
Others have written about the importance of continuing to fight within the system. This side’s view range from challenging those who leave Teach for America to the point of criticizing career educators who have walked away or discouraged young people from joining the profession.
Both sides seem to be making larger statements about what teachers should do in order to make education better for our children – one side stating that we need to walk away from the current system in order to build something new and different, the other arguing that we must continue to work inside the system and create change from within.
In my opinion, there are two major problems with these opposing lines of thinking. The first is the lack of an understanding that in the same way that all students learn in different ways, in the same way that all students should get individualized attention, all teachers (organizers, activists, believers in social justice) have their own ways of being most effective change agents.
Some teachers have the strength, time, and skill to cooperate with the never-ending requirements, programs, and directives while still fostering critical thinking and social justice in the classroom. A few teachers are lucky enough to live in a city or state with a well-organized union, with labor laws that encourage rather than discourage union organizing, and with union sisters and brothers to make policy demands (see Portland, Seattle, and Chicago teachers). Others may be particularly handy at working the system, playing along with the politics of their district, or withstanding the contradictions within the system. And many teachers in good health – both physical and mental – with supportive family and friends, with a supportive partner, with few demands outside of work – can continue teaching even in the most challenging environments for years without any thought of walking away. These teachers expose their students to new ideas, works of literature, and ways of solving problems; they push for better IEP or ESL evaluations; they advocate for students and parents; they work with their unions for better pay and working conditions. I believe that these educators are making the world a better place for our students.
At the same time, some teachers may teach in districts, cities, or states, where, although a union is present, may not have the resources or political will to organize its members and orchestrate mass strikes against testing, class size, or other policies; the union may be service-providing rather than social-organizing. Some teachers may not be politically savvy or willing to compromise enough to deal with conflicts of belief, teaching philosophy, or curriculum – they may not be as good at making strategic friends, or they may not have the patience. There are plenty of teachers who fall into the radical-progressive category, for whom working within the system instead of actively against it violates their core political principles. And there are even more teachers who struggle with issues of mental health and physical health – to the point where, perhaps, the stress created from continuing to teach is literally killing them. (The number of teachers diagnosed with PTSD, depression, anxiety – the number of teachers who attempt suicide – has been increasing in recent years, for various reasons.) Teachers have families – teachers have sick children, mothers, and grandfathers – teachers get divorced – teachers get married – teachers have babies – teachers get in car accidents – teachers go back to get advanced degrees – teachers question their sexuality – teachers have to put their pets to sleep. Perhaps some teachers can face all of these odds and continue to be effective in the classroom – but some can’t. These teachers leave the profession and go on to lead non-profits and community organizations and after-school programs; they work for elected officials or run for office themselves; they create alternative, independent schools, un-schools, homeschool collectives; they organize their communities around issues of education in conjunction with poverty, food justice, environmental racism. I believe that these educators are making the world a better place for our students.
Teachers who stay and teachers who leave are doing the same thing – making a choice based on their strengths, weaknesses, and, yes, their personal desires, to serve our students to the best of their ability. Do you want a teacher who has been unhappy (and unhealthy) in the classroom to stay in teaching because, politically, “it’s the right thing to do?” Do you want a teacher who has been happy and successful in the classroom to quit in teaching because, politically, “it’s the right thing to do?”
The second concern I have with putting these viewpoints in opposition is that they tend to devalue one side over the other. Teachers who quit come out sounding like everyone left inside of the system is unwilling to speak up, catering to power out of fear or weakness, interested only in their own professional advancement, or incompetent. Teachers who stay come out sounding like every departing educator is guilty of running away, abandoning children, using teaching as a stepping stone, being a political zealot, or being incompetent. It becomes an issue of blaming the individual decisions and actions of teachers for the overall failure of our educational system – a public policy problem we have had in this country for too long. Pitting educators who leave against educators who stay is another extremely effective way of dividing and conquering, turning the attention away from the real villains.
Ultimately, we need to bridge the gap between the those inside traditional classrooms and those who have turned their activism outward. We need educators working both inside and outside of the system to build the kind of movement we need to create lasting change.