by CC Chung
I was in line for snacks at a Professional Development day, readying my paper plate for some homemade banana bread and chips. The teacher behind me struck up a conversation while scooping some dip onto her plate. She asked how I was doing in my second year. Fine, I thought. I’m adjusting. I was piloting 1:1 Chromebooks with my students, integrating game-based learning, and slowly building my tool box of teaching strategies. Fine, I thought again.
As we shuffled through the snack line, we began talking about technology and about the college I had graduated from and then she bluntly asked:
“But then… why? Why are you in teaching? I just don’t get it. You could be anywhere else.”
She suggested that workplaces like Amazon and Google offer higher salaries with optimum working conditions, that I could do less grueling work and have a better life.
The directness of her question, of her suggestion that a different job could lead to a “better life,” forced me to stop and think for a moment. Here was a teacher, who I knew and respected, discouraging me, another teacher, from staying in the profession. It felt like she was trying to “save” me.
Many of us have heard a version of this before: “My daughter told me she wanted to be a teacher, like me, and I said no. I made sure of it…so she doesn’t have to live like I do.”
In a 2015 article from The Telegraph titled, “Does Teaching Have an Image Problem?,” Gillian Harvey writes that,
“...far from being regarded as high-working professionals, it seems that teachers are perceived as incompetent, militant and...lacking the ability to deliver curriculum in a balanced way.”
Harvey continues, “This negative working environment leads many teachers to leave the profession.”
How do we begin to peel away at the complexity of the “teacher image” problem?
Start small. We can start with us.
1. Identify areas of growth and spark a conversation.
What are some aspects of the teaching profession that frustrate you? Is it the low salary? Diluted professional development? Inconsistent curriculum? Acknowledging that there are many areas of growth within education is important-- in fact, acknowledgement is the first step. However, how can we begin to spark a conversation around these issues in a solutions-oriented way?
Taylor Mali, in a spoken word piece entitled “What Teachers Make,” sparks conversation nationally as his poem gives teachers a platform to question, think, share knowledge, and find points of pride in our profession.
Just as Mali sparked conversation, so can we. In small and big ways. Instead of asking, “Why is it so difficult?,” we can ask, “How can we make it simpler?” Instead of asking, “Why don’t I just quit and work for Google?,” we can ask, “How can I share with others my triumphs, that add to the reasons why I love teaching and why I love my job?”
2. Words have power. Choose them wisely.
Words have power and we must choose them wisely, writes Dr. Jack Schafer in Psychology Today’s article, Words Have Power. Stop and think-- take a moment to reflect on how you speak about your own teaching profession. How much do you contribute to the negative image of teaching through your words?
“Words cannot change reality,” Dr. Schafer continues, “but they can change how people perceive reality.” When having conversations with people outside of the teaching profession, acknowledge the issues but also celebrate the good and be proud of your role in the lives of students who need us.
Recognizing that words are powerful can help us to remember that they can lead us down positive or negative paths. Back up your words with research and action. Educate yourself around issues you care about, have conversations with others, and find opportunities to find solutions and take action.
3. Celebrate the good.
After a long, hot, and tiring day of facilitating learning for classrooms of students, thinking of the good things that happened in a day can be tough; but you can do it - stop and spend a moment to find that one good thing that happened. Celebrate it. Perhaps it’s the “aha” moment from a student who has been struggling or maybe your grade level or department meeting went smoothly. Whatever it is, find it and celebrate it by simply thinking about it, by writing it down, or by telling a friend about it.
You can also celebrate the good by creating small events within your school or complex area to acknowledge and appreciate the hard work your colleagues have done. How often do we celebrate teachers? In the past year, through events like ECET2 (Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teachers and Teaching), there has been a slow and steady movement to celebrate teachers. In the state of Hawaii alone, there have been over five regional ECET2 HI events that have inspired teachers to continue the celebration in their own schools.
It starts small. It starts with us.
Teachers matter and teachers have power. We are the most important group in shifting the negative narrative around our profession. We can and should reclaim that narrative. People may say, “you could be anywhere else,” but you chose to be here. Tell us why.