Monday, August 10, 2009

On Why Sarah Fine Left Teaching

The Washington Post, a newspaper with a fine history now supported by Kaplan, the testing folks, gave Ms. Sarah Fine, another young star leaving my profession, coveted space in its pages.

I've been holding my tongue on Sarah Fine's Op-Ed. Go read it here. She's young (not a fault, but a factor), and she's part of a cohort expected to do huge things,

Says Sarah:
Teaching is a grueling job, and without the kind of social recognition that accompanies professions such as medicine and law, it is even harder for ambitious young people like me to stick with it.

I've done both teaching and medicine--medicine pays ridiculously well for some, and here in the States that may be enough to give a profession gravitas, esteem, whatever you want to call it.

Docs take a fair amount of jovial abuse here, as do lawyers. Any profession does--if you "profess," expect to be challenged, especially by your peers.

Teaching is hard work--so are a lot (I'd daresay most) jobs, professions, whatever you want to call work. I work with a lot of people who left other fields--professional chemists, business folks, a photographer, a lawyer--and while we're aware that a lot of folks see teachers as those that can't do, we're also aware that, despite the tremendous amount of work required, it's not harder than the professions we left.

So why does anyone teach here in the States? You'll get a lot of answers--love of students, time off, good benefits--but for those of us who happily stay, it's because we believe teaching matters. The financial compensation is reasonable if not spectacular, but that's not why we teach.

(This was originally a reply to Tracy Rosen's blog, Leading From The Heart,
one of my favorites, but my reply got hung up in cyberspace,
I'm not blessed with patience, so here it is here.)


Unknown said...

". . . it is even harder for ambitious young people like me to stick with it."

For what it's worth, I don't really want someone with a ton of ambition in the classroom. It's not always the case, but the people with the most ambition are often overly demanding, impatient with fellow staff members, too slow to ask for help and have a tough time with compassion and empathy.

I've grown less ambitious over my five years of teaching and I think I'm a better teacher for it.

For me, this is a real pet peave. It's why I have such a hard time with Teach for America and why I couldn't stomach "Educating Esme" and why I can't stand the superintendent of Washington DC schools.

If I were a professor, I'd make MacBeth a required text for all new teachers and I'd have really hard conversations about the drive for achievement and the dangers of ambition.

Okay, I'll step off my soapbox now.

Tracy Rosen said...

Your posts and comments always point to truth for me. Teaching matters - much more than the social recognition some wish for.

And when it matters that much for us, we do find the social recognition anyways - it's in the hearts of our students, their parents, our colleagues, and ourselves.

I'm sorry for the technical difficulties you encountered on my blog. I'm going to place a link to this post from mine.

Teacher on the edge said...

After 11 years in urban middle schools, I am more convinced than ever that a good teacher must be spiritually connected to the profession - that more important than pay, social recognition or "status" among ambitious peers must be an underlying belief that enhancing the lives of young people around you (esp. those from more challenged circumstance) is a big part of what your life must be. Without that connection, I think most people will either burn out and be poor and unhappy teachers or leave outright.

amanda said...

I was in the honors classes in high school, full of students who many teachers love to teach--smart, engaged, etc. Even there, the worst teacher I had was the one fresh out of a PhD program who just couldn't comprehend what it was like to be a 14-year-old trying to learn geometry for the first time. Often--certainly not always, but definitely often--those who are good at learning a subject are terrible at teaching it. If math always came easily to you and intrinsically made sense, then how can you explain it to somebody for whom that isn't the case?

I'm not convinced that programs like Teach for America and inner-city teaching fellowships are the best way to recruit good teachers. Rather than go after the "best and brightest" (read: the privileged kids at ivy league schools), perhaps teacher recruitment programs should go directly to those schools that need teachers the most and find students who are working hard and who appreciate the work of their teachers. Offer more than just a teaching certificate; offer a college degree plus a Master's in exchange for a commitment of a number of years of work post-degrees.

In addition, teaching should be far more respected than it is. But that is a far broader, more deeply-rooted problem, one intricately woven into many more aspects of society than merely pay not matching value of work.

momomom said...

Little House style teacher training was do stay in school until you're 14 then teach.

Pickle seeds ready but I need a mailing address please.

Brandy said...

I am glad to see positive views on teaching. I am finishing my PhD, and in the process of getting certified to teach. I've had to defend this choice so many times. My PI said it was a waste of my talent, as did our department chair. I even had other grad students who had taught before tell me it was horrible. I don't have enough experience yet to dispute them, but I do think some people just like to complain. Every job has its pros and cons. It also shocks me that the same people (in my department - at a med research hospital) that say students don't learn anything about science in high school think teaching is for morons.

doyle said...

Dear John,

I've been blessed with a lack of ambition, and I think Macbeth is worth a read for all of us in education--teachers, administrators, and students.

(And when is that book getting released?)

Dear Tracy,

We've both gone done so entwined the posts now people are starting to talk. =) Thanks for being understanding about the hijack--

Dear cvs brown teacher,

I agree, and I think that's true in all professions if you want to be happy. More than one doc has muttered to me that they, too, would like to change fields. Easier said than done, true, but some physicians have been hoisted by the "glamor" (and money) of the field, and cannot let go. Most, of course, love it, as they should.

Dear ertzeid,

First, I think you've hit on a wonderful idea! Recruiting those who see the value of the field would go a long way to successful retention.

I suspect that teaching is respected but that the amount of work most teachers put in is not; still, given our position in town (we're a huge chunk of the local tax bill in New Jersey) and given the tenuous nature of many jobs outside of teaching, whining about how little respect we have is not going to help our public image.

(Most teachers I work with love teaching; some of the noisiest about lack of respect are the ones doing the least to earn it.)

Dear momomom,

We're not so advanced from the Little House on the Prairie Model as we pretend.

The address I'll send via gmail--and thanks!!!

Dear Brandles,

Took me a bit of time to learn, but life's mortal, and only you can ultimately determine what you think your vocation should be.

I will say this--go observe lots of classrooms before plunging in--there's no shame in deciding that you don't like it, but if you're truly interested, I think you'll find the classrooms calling you.

Ms. P. said...

Doesn't sound like she really wanted to be a teacher. Most teachers aren't "climbers". My "ambition" is to be in the classroom with kids. I want to help them realize that they can reach their "ambition" through hard work and believing in themselves. Those that don't think our profession is important, need to realize that they would not be where they are now if someone had not taken the time to teach them the skills they are now using to reach their "ambition".

doyle said...

Dear Ms. P,

As I read your note, I just realized something--maybe it's not teaching per se that irks so many but rather our perceived (and real) lack of ambition (which is not the same as laziness).

We live in a culture that rewards people for pulling up stakes, moving their clan from place to place, moving up and up into higher/better/more.

"Ambition" is a funny word--most teachers I know want to be the best teacher in the building (or county or state or world--we're ambitious that way). We don't, however, aspire to be "more" than a teacher--one of the joys of teaching is being surrounded by others who know what enough means.

If you don't know what you want, ambition makes sense. If you have what you want, well, ambition is a curse.

dale said...

Most of these comments have merit. I will not speak to the others, altough I am urged to d just that.

This poor child is smart, but so misguided. I spent 24 years in business before returning to teaching. I cannot think of anything that I would rather do. Granted, I teach in a small town with miniscule problems.

Teachers have a right to complain. They get little support from the LEAs, little support fron parents and administration, and no support from their state legislators. Bottom line, they teach out of love for the kids.

So, why are they considered an afterthought? It is simply because we as a society do not hold education any higher than an afterthought. We had rather pay professional atheletes an outlandish sum than pay our teachers an amount equal to ensure the future of our society. We had rather worry about losing Paula Abdul from a lame TV show than losing a potentially great teacher.

We are pathetic. We will lose our greatness in this world because we do not value education or those who educate. We pay only lip service to the development of our children.

I don't blame Sarah from leaving the soulful path of teaching. I blame us, you and me, for not honoring those who give their lives to helping our youth grow, .earn, and become contributors to our future.

God bless them everyone.

JasonP said...


Thanks for the post. I've been reading on Tracy's blog and The Line (Dina), and I've noticed your name. I commented on this at my blog as well.

I just think that we have to create a culture in our schools that rewards unorthodox teaching. Sarah Fine was unsupported in her creative activity. There are too many teachers with good ideas who are leaving because of crap like that. Sure, she wasn't intrinsically motivated at the end.

I think Fine's ambitious attitude can be a problem like John noted. I also think administrators that can't recognize or don't want to take the time to recognize a well-designed lesson is a serious problem.

doyle said...

Dear dale,

You raise a good point--a good chunk of our culture does not value education, including those that seek to make it a commodity.

Teachers may or may not "have a right to complain," but if it's not constructive, I work to avoid the complaining. I know most teachers teachers work hard, but I also know that most of the families in town here are working just as hard.

Dear Jason,

Seems like this is a hot topic--my post was really a response to Tracy Rosen's post, but glad to see you dropping by.

I think we should focus on teaching that works, orthodox or otherwise. What works on Monday might fail Tuesday. I'll dissect my good days as well as my bad days to see if I can figure out exactly what worked and why.

I'll admit it's sometimes more fun to be unorthodox, and it can be useful on occasion to stir up a class, but rewarding someone just for being unorthodox doesn't fly.

(Even an "orthodox" lesson requires a tremendous amount of creativity to work well--just think of all the decision points you reach every minute or so in class, responding to both verbal and non-verbal cues. Good teaching is both pro-active and reactive. Orthodox does not mean canned.)

Kings said...

by the comments here that suggest teachers shouldn't be ambitious and shouldn't complain.

I don't think teaching should be considered like entering a religious order, requiring obedience and subservience -- and keep in mind, the numbers in convents are dwindling.

Kings said...

my comment was somehow cut off at the beginning - it should read,

"I'm disturbed by...."

Tracy Rosen said...

I'm sorry that is how you read these comments. I, for one, am certainly no nun or religious zealot when it comes to teaching. It has nothing to do with rolling over and being obedient. On the contrary, good teaching is about questioning and change.

Ambition here, is in the context of social ambition - wanting to climb a ladder towards an image of success. (For further commentary on ambition and success, take a look at this video - I find it relates to this line of the conversation quite nicely: )

My ambition in teaching has to do about being more in the present while I teach, being more in relationship with my students and my colleagues. Being. More.

Unknown said...

I'm not advocating considering it a priesthood. I do, however, see it as a meaningful career. We have more autonomy than most careers. And, while it's true that we work really hard, so does my sister who is a corporate accountant.

It's one thing to take shots at the system. It's even better to offer solutions to reform it. What's hard for me is when someone rushes into a profession, finds it as a poor fit and then plays the victim card about lack of recognition.

Too many young teachers come in with an imperialistic mindset. Whether it's the inherent elitism of Teach for America or it's someone who saw Freedom Writers a few too many times, there is a danger in coming in and trying to get famous doing something big.

But off to the sidelines, outside of the hype, there are thousands of teachers who work really long hours, do really amazing things with students and expect nothing in return. Why? Because the job matters. Because education is valuable.

Okay, I'll step back off my soap box again.

doyle said...

Dear Kings,

I don't think that professionals, in general, should complain. If you don't like your field, get out--you're "professing" to be in it.

(This is not the same as saying not to go and fix things within your channels.)

I don't think that teaching should be the same as entering a religious order, but you are entering a profession. Again, you are "professing." Others have done this before you. There are, well, in the word of Jack Sparrow, "guidelines."

If dwindling numbers is an argument against doing the right thing, then we are screwed. Which, ahem, I suspect that we are.

Dear Tracy,

Being. More. Yes.

Dear John,

Please stay on your soapbox. What we do does matter. Yes, we work long hours, No, we expect nothing in return, but we gt it back anyway, if not financially.

Jacinta said...

I've only just discovered this blog and the article about Sarah Fine. I'm mid-way through my first English teaching post in five years, and was searching for other people's views on leaving teaching. Because, five years ago I started having all sorts of mental and physical problems and thought that I had some kind of weird disease that my doctor wasn't diagnosing correctly. Eventually, though, I believed him. I had acquired an anxiety disorder due to the stress of teaching. So after a few years of getting myself back to a state of health, I tried taking on a part-time post for a term, but I'm three weeks in and I'm having problems sleeping at night, my mind won't stop racing, and I'm remembering just how ridiculous the education system is, with final year students having absolutely no respect for the learning of other students in the class and administration doing very little to rectify the problem, and not supporting my needs to deal with the disruptive students.

It just seems a bit rough, to me, to criticise Sarah Fine for somehow not having a real love of kids/teaching, when it was pretty obvious from that article that she was creating incredible experiences for her students with absolutely no recognition from her SUPERVISOR (excuse caps, but I don't know how to italicise here). This basic lack of recognition would probably drive her to seek recognition on some more obvious level.

And I don't know what school you teach in, but there are some truly difficult schools out there. (I live in Australia, so probably a different variety of difficulty, but difficulty nonetheless.) When you spend most of your time writing up behavioural reports, letters of concern to parents, following up whether a student reached a class he/she was sent out to, etc, etc, it's hard to have LOVE for that. So many of us go in bright and bushy-tailed and leave weak and hunched over because of this kind of thing. I am one of about five teachers I know who've had stress-related illness due to teaching. And I know there are more out there. It's just not talked about.

Doing it for the love of it, despite the stress, is great for martyrdom, but not necessarily for personal happiness, and not necessarily for optimal health. And there are TOO many teachers out there who don't realise this until it's too late. It's taken me five years to get 80-90% recovered from my anxiety disorder. But trying teaching again right now is just showing me that my mind and body are really not that ready for it yet. This is what REALLY happens when you take on too much stress and do it for the love of others and disregard yourself.

This stress probably IS more difficult than many other professions. I've worked in a school (the school I left before I noticed how ill I was getting) where many kids were the offspring of drug addicts and prisoners. The work basically becomes like being a prison guard yourself. I don't know of any prison guard that has to go home and still mark 30 papers and devise lesson plans for 5 classes for the next day.

I guess my message here is not to be too harsh on someone else's reason/s for leaving teaching when you might not have gone through HER experiences yourself, being at a different school with different administration and different kids, etc.

In my opinion, anyone who TRIED teaching deserves a medal. Anyone who leaves it, deserves one for remembering to look after themselves first.

doyle said...

Dear Jacinta,

I have no problem with folks leaving professions--I left medicine, as is clear from the post.

Ms. Fine complained that a lack of "social recognition" made it more difficult for "ambitious young people" to stick with it.

Had she been my sister, I would have congratulated her for recognizing her need to move, we might have discussed this over coffee at the local diner. It would have been a private conversation.

Sarah Fine took her private conversation to the national level, and a few of us responded. I know her experience may have been different from mine, but it does not change her point.

I am sorry teaching has not yet worked out for you. A different venue may make a difference, it may not--only you can know. I agree anyone who tries teaching deserves a medal. I will say that (for me, anyway) the stress in teaching is less than the stress in medicine, but I often thrive on stress, as do many in either field.

I agree many of us should leave, and I agree that looking after yourself is not necessarily dishonorable. I do not agree, however, that anyone who looks after themselves first deserves a medal. There's not enough gold in Fort Knox for that.

Elona Hartjes said...

I'm with Tracy when she says "My ambition in teaching has to do about being more in the present while I teach, being more in relationship with my students and my colleagues. Being. More."

I don't equate being ambitious with getting out of the classroom. I can be quite ambitious within the classroom developing relationships with my students that help them take more responsibility for their education.

doyle said...

Dear Elona,

Great to see you back!

"Ambitious" is a tricky word--any decent teacher needs to be ambitious. The word has been twisted to become synonymous with climbing up ladders of power. (Looking at its roots, though, maybe not so contorted after all....)

I love Tracy's take on this.

Andrew said...

I could not agree with you more. As a young teacher living in the Caribbean, I can identify with alot of what you have said. Teaching IS hard work and it can affect your health in many ways. Yes it is good to see students progressing well, turning their lives around, expressing thanks to you for what you have done for them and and so on,but the conditions of service, the incesssant paper work,general indiscipline which seeems to be on the increase every year, sometimes the lack of support from the principal or other colleagues, makes the profession very very stressful. Added to this the individual attention which must be paid to each student, which the authorities here are insisting must be done.A class of students of 20 - 30 each with behavioural problems, clamouring for attention from one teacher is no joke.It is a cause for real concern and it will sooner or later affect one's health.I have a bit more than 10years in the service, and although I was recently appointed,if I left tomorrow I would hardly regret it. I think no two persons are the same, but all in all each person must weigh the pros and cons and carefully determine what they want to do. Sarah may have had good reasons for not wishing to stay in the profession, all of which might not have been mentioned here. In the final analysis, it is entirely an individual matter. If you truly love teaching, inspite of the challenges etc, go for it, if you dont, seek an alternative profession as soon as possible- where there is less stress and that you can take proper care of your health etc. Your closing statements really touched me. It is so true. Judging by what teachers have done and the contribution we make to society as a whole, all of us, those who are currently in the system and those who are not all deserve gold medals,and may I add multiple medals too. When we teach we are actually giving of ourselves to others, our time, our knowledge, our skill, our advice. To really understand the life of a teacher one must be in the system to experience it- first hand, not from someone else
s experiences. Yet there are times when we can do so much and no more. It IS AND CONTINUES TO BE a stressful profession made unnecesarily so by the conditions under which we have to work. Truly God has helped us to make a difference inspite of the challenges, and I cannot fault Sarah for leaving. I intend to leave it myself as soon as I can also, with God's direction. Yes I have ambitions, to be the very best in what I do, Im not driven by money, or prestige or fame. In fact Im the opposite, but I can sense when I have become saturated and my passion for teaching is going. Yes I love children and I want the best for them too, and I also want to realise some of my personal goals also. May God sustain us and may He bless us all.