Imagine a profession whose influence on individual lives is more significant than that of nearly any other occupation, whose role in society is universally acknowledged to be among the most critical to the future, and whose practitioners are often described as “heroic,” “beloved,” and “admired.” Now imagine that this profession cannot recruit and retain the best people because it is seen by many as a dead end, neither financially remunerative nor socially and creatively fulfilling.
This destructive paradox describes the profession of teaching in the United States.
Soon the education priorities for President Obama’s second administration will begin to take shape. They will no doubt include, as they did during his first term, recruiting and retaining strong teachers who can prepare young people for the contemporary workforce. They should also include renewing our national commitment to teaching as a profession of status and a life of consequence.
We recently conducted a study for the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, which is working to recruit and prepare teachers. We interviewed new teachers, former teachers, scholars, and education leaders, probing to learn why so many talented people who see teaching as a vocation do not last long in the job.
The clear finding that emerged: Many new teachers in the United States are committed to values that extend beyond expediency, narrow self-interest, and the present moment. These are precisely the kind of people who can help young people learn, not just how to make a living, but how to live and what to live for.
But the system almost forces these new teachers toward other occupations.
Talented, idealistic young teachers reminded us how draining it is to be in the classroom, particularly in high-need schools. “It’s just heavy emotional labor,” one teacher told us of her work with dropouts who had come back to school. Some teachers have coaching to get through the tough moments, but too many don’t. Even the best can burn out.
As many studies have shown, without adequate mentoring, administrative support, or opportunities for professional feedback and development, the first three years of teaching become a trial by fire. In fact, various researchers have found that one-third to one-half of all teachers – and even more in high-need schools – leave the profession within the first five years, often citing lack of support and resources as reasons for their departure.
The perceived low status of teaching is also a serious obstacle to keeping teachers in classrooms. So, of course, are compensation issues and questions of how teachers’ effectiveness is evaluated, the subject of frequent and corrosive headlines that often reduce teaching to test scores.
Not surprisingly, many new teachers reported a phase where they felt disillusioned, defeated, and a deep sense of having failed. Teachers who have been academic high-achievers often cannot deal with this sense of failure; they have been hard-working, motivated, and successful in virtually everything they have done. They blame themselves for not better overcoming the shortcomings of the system and soon begin to believe they are not good teachers.
To help new teachers deal with classroom strains, better preparation – including year-long experiences in real classrooms, integrated with university coursework – is powerfully effective. So is strong mentoring in the first couple of years of teaching. Good school leadership is also crucial. One teacher told us, “The teachers set the tone in the classroom, and a principal sets the tone in the building.”
Most of all, as many observers have argued, those hoping to elevate the teaching profession need to identify opportunities for growth and distinction that will support a greater respect for teaching. One education policy expert told us, “If you’re a high achiever and you’re looking at the landscape of occupations, you know you might go really far if you go into law or business, or medicine. But, in teaching, what you see ahead of you is many years of doing the same thing.”
Both prospective teachers and society as a whole need to hear something different from the current debate over teaching performance. They need to hear and see the teaching profession and evaluation associated with rewarding, creative outcomes that extend beyond statistical benchmarks. They need more than a few feel-good stories about the internal satisfaction that comes from working with young people. They need to see a profession that allows educators to grapple with – and embrace – the most difficult ethical, scientific, and political questions the world has ever faced.
What’s more, people who might consider teaching need to see it as a profession whose members are valued and rewarded with both improved financial compensation and clear opportunities to advance without leaving the classroom. They need to see schools where professional development is meaningful and teacher evaluation is broad and useful. They need to see administrators who support teachers, establish a culture of respect and excellence, and lead effectively.
This kind of appeal, backed by real opportunities for intellectual and professional growth, could be attractive to the rising generation of highly educated young adults – those seeking careers that are personally rewarding and have an impact on society.
It is crucial that well-prepared, well-supported, professionally fulfilled teachers stay in education. Our future is their hands; it depends on their skill and their engagement. As former Harvard president Derek Bok wrote, “Education institutions [must] assume the responsibility to cultivate interests and supply the knowledge that will help young people make more enlightened choices about how to live their lives.” If our nation’s schools are truly to recruit and retain great teachers – across all fields – we need to renew this broad vision of their profession.
Eric Klinenberg is professor of sociology and director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University. Caitlin Zaloom is associate professor of social and cultural analysis at NYU.