To Teach or Not To Teach? That is the Question

By Bill Henk – The inspirations for my weekly blog posts come in many different ways, some foreseen and others complete surprises.   Today’s post is one of the latter.  I certainly didn’t see the whole Shakespeare thing coming.

Anyway, the unexpected topic here centers on the clash of two utterly contradictory educational employment trends that somehow never registered with me — well, at least not until earlier this week.

Fact is, I knew both trends well, but never put them together.  In hindsight it’s now hard to believe that I didn’t.  Actually it’s kind of embarrassing.

In short, when it comes to teaching, people entering or exiting the profession could not have more widely varying perspectives on greener pastures.  Think “VERY different strokes for NOT so very different folks” here.

My epiphany (in the tradition of Twelfth Night) occurred at a retreat of the education deans in our region.  For what it’s worth, I’ve found that retreats often give rise to really good ideas, because the participants have time to go deep with their thinking.

With that hope in mind, our group of higher education leaders set aside a full day primarily to discuss two big themes:  publicly affirming teachers with various expressions of our support and brainstorming ways to work together as a group to impact urban education more effectively.  I’m pleased to report that we made noteworthy progress on both counts, and readers can expect me to blog about this work one day.

But it wasn’t the big themes that triggered my little  educational revelation.  Instead, two isolated facts mentioned at different points in the meeting came together in a way that the irony of their co-existence finally struck me.  It was their juxtaposition that convinced me the stark contrast was blogworthy.

Cutting to the Chase (or Hecuba*)

OK, Here’s the deal.

At the same time that many teachers are choosing to depart the profession we also find that plenty of other individuals are giving up their careers, which are often successful, secure, and more lucrative, in favor of the classroom.  How can this be?

It turns out that somewhere between 30% and 50% of all new teachers, particularly in urban settings, opt out of the profession after two or three years.  Plenty more educators abandon teaching at later points, but well before retirement.  For whatever reason, and  burnout is cited most often, teachers at various career stages reach the conclusion that they need to do something else — “and there’s the rub” — out there in the world.

The paradox is that a fair number of adults who are actually “out there in the world,” also at varying career stages, arrive at a very different conclusion.  They’ve decided that teaching represents something they either want or feel called to do.

Some of them report always wanting to teach or a love of history or math or science or English.  Others find their current careers to be lacking in meaningfulness and gratification.  Many regard the teaching profession as a noble pursuit.  Still others report just liking the idea of working with kids and adolescents.  The list of motivations goes on, but in every instance these career-changing, aspiring teachers believe that whatever is missing in their present employment might be found within the walls of K-12 school buildings.

Wait, let’s see if we’ve got this right.  We have two groups — both of whom are abandoning unhappy professional existences to pursue careers that the other group desperately wishes to escape.

These Are the Questions

This situation begs all kinds of questions for me.  How have the costs of teaching come to outweigh its inherent benefits?  Are exiting teachers so distraught that they believe doing almost anything else would be preferable?  Do they regard rolling the dice and taking their chances as ultimately necessary to achieving professional and personal fulfillment?  Is the uncertainty that they will face ‘out there’ better than the educational realities they must endure daily?

And what about the career changers?  Do they have a realistic sense of how difficult teaching has become and the stressors that they’ll confront?  Are they unaware that many teachers are bailing on the very jobs they seek?  What makes them think that teaching, a profession under assault, is going to be satisfying enough to justify the sacrifices that must be made?

For both groups, is this “the winter of their discontent?”  Do both need to beware because “All that glisters is not gold?”   Is changing careers “the stuff as dreams are made on?”  Or is it the case that, “All the world ‘s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances.”

In the end, I guess the following words of the immortal bard tell the tale:

To thine own self be true.”


*Note to readers:  This phrase refers to the practice of shortening matinée performances of Hamlet by cutting the long speeches before the reference to Hecuba in Act II, Scene ii.

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