Work That Is Real: What Sustains Today’s Teachers?

November 7th, 2011

Teacher educator Maureen Barbieri recently conducted an informal survey on her Facebook page, asking teacher friends what keeps them going in these confusing, difficult times for teachers. She shares the results in this essay. We would love to hear from you: what keeps you going as a teacher?

In her poem “Tribute to Teaching,” Shelley Harwayne poses the question, “What gets you up in the morning?” In other words, why do teachers keep coming to work?  Lately this question has been on my mind, given all the forces that seem to be stacked against teachers these days: the media obsession with school reform, which tends to give teachers short shrift; commercial curriculum chosen with little teacher input and little room for teacher autonomy; high-stakes testing for younger and younger children; and a widespread distrust of public spending and public servants of any kind. Faced with all of this, what keeps teachers coming to work?

Pondering this question and aware of the challenges teachers face, I’ve been doing an informal survey on Facebook of friends and former students who are teaching right now. “What sustains you as a teacher?” I ask. Their reflections fall into three general categories: (1) they love working with kids, (2) they respect and appreciate their colleagues, and (3) they embrace the intellectual rigor and creativity that their work demands.

Diana, who’s been teaching middle school for many years, says laughter keeps her going. She says, “Surely somewhere it has been written, ‘Teachers, love the children more than you love the personal money you spend on hand sanitizer, tissues, paperbacks, writers’ notebooks, and writing utensils for them; teachers, love the children more than you love a clean house, a free weeknight, a calm Sunday afternoon, and a leisurely lunch; teachers, love the children more than you hate wasteful meetings, mindless paperwork, and pointless bureaucracy; teachers love the children more than you dread the faltering economy, the angry taxpayer, and personal bankruptcy. Perhaps I exaggerate.” Perhaps she doesn’t.

But still, she hangs in there. “The best days for me are the ones where I can say, ‘I made ‘em laugh today!’ I relish finding new ways to bring the wonder of language (and human nature) to my students in a way that makes them THINK, LEARN, and SMILE. . . .”

Of course, it is about the kids—for Diana, for every teacher who responded to my question, and for countless others who press on in the face of discouraging circumstances. These are extraordinary people who consider it their vocation to build relationships with young people, to share their own passion for learning, and to entice students into exploring the life of the mind.

“When I think of teaching, I don’t refer to it as ‘work.’ I say ‘school’ because for me, I am learning from the children. They drive my instruction, and they bring out my energy,” writes Eileen, a Brooklyn early childhood educator and mother of two young sons.

Ashley, a former University of New Hampshire student, is now teaching first grade in Harlem. She says, “The statistics vary, but many read that only 40 percent of NYC students graduate high school. I wake up in the morning, think of that statistic and realize I can change it (or at least I can try to).”

This determination comes up, again and again, as I read teachers’ postings. They are listening carefully, finding energy in the needs, the honesty, and the efforts of their students. They see their work as meaningful, and they want to make a difference.

“It’s the kids,” writes John, who teaches middle school in Brooklyn. “Even when the reality that we as adults bring with us intrudes, the kids are always curious (not always about the things we want them to be curious about, but curious just the same), genuine (in a way we are not), and filled with possibility. . . . Not only do they change and grow constantly, but they force me to figure out a way to change and grow with them.”

Jason, who’s been teaching for fifteen years, reminds me that teaching is, and always will be, inherently political. “What sustains me? Some days it’s the little moments . . . working with a student at lunch, a random incidental teaching moment or conversation. Some days it’s the grand successes . . . the student I got into the Stella Adler Acting Studio, the student who turned in the best writing of her academic career in the form of her college admissions essay. Some days it’s the joy of the craft of teaching . . . the lesson itself that works out exactly as intended. Some days it’s the creativity . . . coming up with a new way of doing things that puts the focus on the students. But at the heart of each and every one of these experiences beats the core value of student agency. I got into teaching because I saw how adolescents were being devalued, how their incredible insights were dismissed, how their voices were stifled by adults in the community who viewed them as human becomings rather than human beings. And each day, I do all I can to provide a safe, productive, critical space for my students to engage in that sense of voice, to realize they have power in the world and in our school. Whether they’re questioning a text, questioning me and my ‘authority,’ or questioning school policy and advocating for change, their drive sustains me. . . . The mini-revolution that happens once my classroom door closes is more than enough to get me through.”

Teachers also speak with gratitude about being able to work with dedicated, like-minded colleagues and administrators who trust them to make their own decisions in the classroom. Natalia explains, “The adults around me are motivated and passionate and make it their intention to nurture. Being an eternal student myself, what I have learned is to embrace the rewards and challenges of teaching by choosing to be graceful in everything I do instead of ‘perfect.’”

Melissa also knows that colleagues can make all the difference. “So often it is said that teaching can be a solitary profession, but I wholeheartedly disagree. I get through the difficult days with the support and guidance of my sage colleagues. They inspire me with their intelligence and empathy and also provide a healthy dose of humor for those moments when you feel stuck in a French absurdist play.”

Meredith says, “My colleagues are an essential part of my longevity in the classroom. . . .  And by extension, things like this [Facebook] page sustain me—along with books, magazines, and blogs about teaching—it all reminds me that I am part of a much larger community of educators with heart.”

Finally, they’re grateful that the work is challenging. They do not shrink from difficulties, embracing instead the chance to be flexible, compassionate, and courageous. Don Murray used to say, “I’m apprenticed to two crafts I will never master, writing and teaching.” It’s often the need to do it better that keeps us in the game. Every day is another chance, and teaching, like writing, is all about revision. These smart teachers appreciate meaningful professional development. They do research, attend conferences, and take courses during the summer months.

Kerry, a French teacher in Maine, goes to a workshop every year where she is able to learn more about progressive methods of teaching language through storytelling. She also presents her own work, a challenge she welcomes. “I look forward to it all year,” she says. “And I always come away more inspired and eager to teach.”

“What sustains me changes daily,” says Meredith. “And THAT is what sustains me over time—the richness of this profession. Two snippets/quotes float into my head when I’m at school (or just thinking about it). One is the title of a Calvin and Hobbes collection, ‘All the World in a Day.’ In our lives as teachers, each day holds so much: we make thousands of small but loaded decisions, we act as parents/psychologists/nurses/mediators/scientists, and we interact with the wide world in all its complexity through our students’ needs, backgrounds, personalities, and actions. By 3:00, I often feel like I’ve participated in a seven-hour reenactment of human history.

“The other words that often come to mind are from Marge Piercy’s poem, ‘To Be of Use’: ‘The pitcher cries for water to carry / and a person for work that is real.’ For me that line connects especially to teaching because teachers have to truly ‘submerge in the task.’ Teaching has forced me to learn how to be much more present, to work in the realm of the real rather than in the realm of my own projections, fears, and assumptions.”

Shelley wrote a poem that ends with these lines:

I’m up now, really up

Eager to go to work,

Eager to see the honest faces of children,

Eager to lose myself in the important work at hand—

Teaching children to make a better world.

The teachers who were kind enough to send me their notes from the field are immersed in “the important work at hand,” and I’m hoping they’ll stick with it for a long, long time.

Works Cited

Harwayne, Shelley. 1999. “Tribute to Teaching,” in Going Public: Priorities and Practice at the Manhattan New School. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Piercy, Marge. 1973. “To Be of Use,” in Circles on the Water. New York: Knopf.

Entry Filed under: Leadership & Mentoring

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Yi Zheng  |  November 26th, 2011 at 9:25 pm

    Maureen. Great article and you paint a great picture that answers the question about what sustains the teachers with first person quotes and experiences from the teachers themselves. Thanks for sharing and kudos to all the teachers for their hard work!

  • 2. Marni Gillard  |  December 16th, 2011 at 8:39 pm

    Thank you for collecting teacher’s voices, Maureen. I left full-time teaching to pursue work as a teaching storyteller (Storyteller, Storyteacher, Stenhouse) in 1991. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t recall what sustained me as an every-day teacher – watching kids thrive and mend their hearts through reading, writing, telling and acting out tales – and it’s what still rewards me as a teaching-artist. I too ask educators everywhere I go about their lives. I notice their weariness, yet marvel at the joy in the storiesTHEY tell.

  • 3. Shary  |  December 17th, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    I became a teacher because I was the child who got left behind. My grades were good, I read above grade level, & yet teachers continually looked through me as a non-entity. I learned in spite of them and not because of. My mother pushed me from behind while 2 wonderful teachers pulled me along the path of loving to learn. I am sustained by time I spend getting my students to go down that same path, learning disabilities and all!

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