Teaching isn’t a Calling. It’s a Job.
Well that’s an unexpected title.
An alarming study was released earlier this week that reveals, among other things, that almost half of teachers in Scotland rate their mental health as “poor” or “very poor.” In the United States, economists suggest that teacher turnover costs schools more than $2 billion per year. That’s billion with a “B” per year. The same study estimates that 40–50% of teachers leave the profession in the first 5 years.
Were I to take the same survey as Scottish teachers, I would rate my mental health as excellent. In my first five years of teaching there was never a moment where I considered quitting. Sure, I got mad and disappointed and stressed, but I never thought I should quit. So what’s the difference? Is it some stroke of magical luck that I haven’t ever considered quitting or that I love going to work every day and working with my students and colleagues? I think not. Is my job stability related to a well-designed mentoring system in my district? Nope, not that either.
What it boils down to for me is this: I think I have the best job in the world. But guess what, it’s a job.
Let’s be honest. If I had my druthers and unlimited financial resources I’d be on a beach right now drinking something cold and eating chicken fingers while watching the waves roll in. But since I need to have a job, I picked a job that I’m good at doing, that I enjoy, and that I think matters a lot. But it’s still a job.
I don’t think it’s hard to hypothesize about why this mindset isn’t exactly popular for teachers to say out loud. The very public narrative about bad and selfish teachers coupled with the increasing demands of the profession, the numerous attacks on classroom autonomy and workers’ rights, the low pay in many areas, and the high stakes of the work in general all contribute to low morale, high incidence of mental health issues, and high turnover.
These realities also push teachers into a corner where the constant dialogue sounds something like this:
Donald Trump, Jr. [paraphrased] “Those union teachers are the worst. They don’t care about kids; they just care about sucking on the public teat.”
All Teachers Everywhere “No, we’re not. Teaching is a calling. We love our jobs more than anything. Just look at all the money I spent on school supplies for my students last year.”
It becomes passé to say what should be our reality. “I work as hard as I possibly can. I care about my students and their families and community, and I do everything I can to ensure their success. I am good at my job and strive to improve. But it’s a job, and I’m a human being.”
Suggesting that teachers view their work in this way borders on heretical in the profession. Let’s be clear. I am in no way suggesting that teachers set low expectations for their students or that they accept laziness or failure in themselves. What I am suggesting is that teachers need to strike a balance in their own lives that allows them to be both reflective and realistic. I’m suggesting teachers allow themselves room to be human beings with lives apart from work. I’m suggesting that teachers should function like bankers and doctors and lawyers and salespeople. I’m suggesting that we reclaim the fact that teaching is a job. It’s a crucial job that needs to be done well. But It’s. A. Job.
This mindset isn’t necessary simply for individual classroom teachers to cope with the demands of the job. The mindset is necessary on a systemic level.
Public education needs long-term committed human beings who are motivated to improve their practice and to work to improve student outcomes. It needs human beings who volunteer and work in their communities. It needs human beings who have real struggles and real lives and can balance these competing interests in a healthy way.
It needs real people who know how to build real relationships in order to help real students achieve success.
Public education doesn’t need more Hillary Swank “Freedom Writers” teachers. You know she quit teaching after 4 years, right? The movie that paints her as the classic “hero teacher” also includes a scene where she chooses her profession over her marriage. She has the right to make that choice, but the fact that teachers have to make that false choice is systemically unhealthy. It’s unhealthy for individual teachers and consequently for students.
Public education doesn’t need more Teach for America temporary employees who work feverishly for two years to improve student test scores and then burn out or leave for the greener pastures of corporate America or policy setting board rooms.
Public education needs people like me. I work hard to help my students achieve success, and I reflect on my practice to continuously improve. I crush it some days and get crushed on other days.
And then I go home.
I cook dinner every night and take my kids to piano and karate. I coach T-ball and softball. I read and play video games and watch Netflix and walk my dog. I tuck my kids into bed and get up early and go to the gym. My job is important, but it is a small part of who I am as a person. We teachers need to allow ourselves to work hard but not to be defined exclusively by our work.
Public education needs human beings like my intern who is learning and growing as an educator while balancing the demands of another job and a marriage and the heavy coursework of a challenging masters’ degree program.
Public education needs human beings like my colleague whose out-of-state father is sick and my other colleague who is expecting her first child this summer.
Public education needs human beings like my colleague who volunteers for political campaigns and is running for office to improve her community.
Public education needs human beings like my friends across the city of Pittsburgh who read and write and coach and work to improve professional development for other teachers.
Public education needs human beings like my friend in Chicago who struggles with the safety of both his students and his own children while taking a month’s salary pay cut because of gross mismanagement and political incompetence.
Public education needs human beings like my friends in Minnesota and Maine and New Jersey who have their own unique professional struggles and personal challenges.
In short, public education needs human beings who are fully committed both to their work and to themselves. It needs people who are in the profession for the long haul, focused on both continuous improvement and on achieving a work/life balance. We cannot continue to accept the narrative that we are never good enough and that we should shrink back into our classrooms accepting nothing but perfection from ourselves and others. If we can’t find this balance, our system and its students will continue to suffer.