Teacher burnout is a problem and we all know the statistics. Roughly half of teachers leave the profession within their first five years. The percentage of teachers who leave is especially high in schools with over 80% of students qualifying for Free or Reduced Lunch. You know there’s a morale problem in your profession when the only reason attrition slows down is a massive economic recession.
Considering how many people quit on teaching, I think it’s time to celebrate an underrated quality in the teachers who stay: stubbornness. I know stubbornness gets a bad rap, and generally for good reason. Nobody wants to work with someone who’s uncompromising or refuses to consider another perspective.
Too many times, veteran teachers are particularly singled out as stubborn. They’re unfairly stigmatized as a group of teachers unwilling to change or adapt. Considering how often educators are subjected to new standards, curriculum, programs, and trainings, you could probably forgive this attitude if it was actually an accurate portrayal. But in my experience veteran teachers are often just as thirsty to try new things and grow as professionals as anyone else.
One way these teachers are stubborn is by simply refusing to quit teaching when so many others do. This is a stubbornness we should celebrate. Stubbornness in pursuit of a worthy cause is an admirable attribute, and I can’t think of many causes worthier than educating young people.
In recognition of the positive side of stubbornness, here are a few things we should refuse to give up on:
1.Our students: When you talk to any teacher who’s committed long term to teaching, this is the heart and soul of their work. As most of us know, the students are the best part of our job and our reason for what we do. Teachers who don’t give up are stubbornly dedicated to the young people in their lives. They spend their nights and weekends lesson planning. They attend basketball games and dance recitals. They use their lunches and prep periods to check in on a student who’s not acting like their self. They refuse to accept work that doesn’t mean the highest quality. These are all forms of stubbornness worth emulating.
2.Our community: Teachers who stay in the classroom know that their classroom is nested in a larger community. Whether we teach in New York City or rural Wisconsin, we know that our work is inextricable from the community we work in. Teaching for the long haul requires a commitment to participating in the civic life of the world around our schools in whatever ways we can: toy drives, Get Out the Vote efforts, joining local school councils or attending town hall meetings. Our commitment to community also means getting to know the families of our students. This means going beyond phone calls home about missing homework to truly know our families and finding ways to bring their knowledge into our classrooms.
3.Our values: Teaching takes place in a constantly changing ecosystem. Just since entering teaching I’ve seen the rise (and possible fall) of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core and a myriad of other local, state and national initiatives to fix education. Over these years my policy views have changed, but my core values haven’t. I know if I am going to stay in the classroom like the teachers with 10- and 20-plus years of experience whom I admire, I need to keep those values at my center. From social justice to instilling a lifelong love of reading, we all have our reasons for being teachers. Long term teaching requires a stubborn commitment to these reasons, no matter what else changes.
4.Our colleagues: I could not have survived my first year of teaching without the generosity and wisdom of the teachers who came before me, and refused to give up. Teachers who stay teachers know they must look out for one another. They share lesson plans and resources with one another. They lead professional development and school committees. They stay after school to talk through an idea for an upcoming observation lesson. They also care about each other’s personal lives. They know that teaching will take up every minute of time and ounce of energy that you give. These teachers ask us about our partners, aging parents, children, and hobbies. These are the relationships that are key to sustaining ourselves in an emotionally taxing profession.
5.Our selves: The teachers who have stayed while many have not know that they need to advocate for their selves. They know that it is okay and necessary to ask for professional development. They know that it is okay and necessary to ask for materials from their administration instead of spending out of their own pockets. They know that it is sometimes okay and necessary to call in sick. They know that taking care of 10, 20 or 150 young people requires self-care as well.
I remember looking at certain teachers in my first years of teaching and wondering how or why they were still teaching. I don’t know if I’ve figured it out yet, but at least part of it must be stubbornness. If that’s what it takes then I hope we can all be a little more stubborn too.