Why we stay: Reflections of an Oakland teacher

Jill E. Thomas is a fifth-year teacher at Life Academy of Health and Bioscience in Oakland. She wrote this essay on why she and some of her friends have remained in what can be a grueling, anxiety-filled job. -Katy

It’s that time of year when the announcement of a Back To School Sale sends me running to change the radio or TV channel before I have to be reminded that summer is coming to a close. I don’t want to hear about the fall fashion or discounted school supplies; there are still four weeks until the new cohort of ninth graders begin high school and become the focus of my constant attention. I am a fifth-year teacher, and yet I dread the idea of the school year beginning, the exhaustion I will feel after just a few weeks, the sadness that overwhelms me as I learn my students’ stories, and the frustrations I face working in an unjust system.

Why do I dread going back, but make the decision every year to do just that?

Research has shown that 25 percent of teachers leave the profession after the first year and twice as many leave by year five. It’s even worse in urban schools where the demands on teachers are usually greater as funding is lower, students are less prepared, and politics can distract a teacher from their primary goal – teaching students. In this context, urban teachers are 50 percent more likely to quit teaching. I’m reminded of the reasons teachers leave every time I tell a stranger what I do for a living. I say, “I’m a high school teacher.” They say, “God bless you,” “you must have so much patience,” “it’s a noble profession,” or my favorite, “better you than me.”

These well-intentioned strangers believe they are showing support for the hard work I do or somehow extending empathy. Maybe they are making an indirect apology to all the teachers they disrespected during their own school days. These strangers know why teachers don’t last: The pay is low, the work is hard, there’s all those papers to grade, and on top of it, “students these days…”

There’s no need to pontificate on why teachers leave. Let’s do the reverse and consider why teachers stay. As I approach the statistically pivotal point in my career, it’s a question I ask myself and some of my former classmates from my teacher preparation program – UC Berkeley’s MUSE (Multicultural Urban Secondary English). What I see are some key factors (not all inclusive) that bring me and 56 percent of my teacher cohort back to the urban classroom year after year, beating the 50 percent national average of teachers who stay.

First, I continue teaching because I know there is nothing else I could do with my life that would be as important as this. I teach because it’s the only way I know to truly fight an institution that systematically offers students of color and students who live in poverty less. I teach to fight the good fight. My former classmate Mendel Chernack feels the same way about his job. Years after graduating from Berkeley High, he returned as a reading specialist. He writes, “I think that what I’m doing matters – I’m teaching students who have a desperate need to improve their literacy.” What Chernack and I refer to is what has been called a “sense of mission.” It’s easier to keep coming back if we believe what we do has an impact.

However, as Chernack points out, “…if I felt that I was not being successful at this task, the nobility of the goal itself would not matter. But since I do notice improvement each year, the job remains fulfilling.” A sense of accomplishment is vital if teachers are going to be able to stay in the classroom. Without a doubt, this is one of the factors that keeps me there. In fact, every year I see myself improve as a teacher. I have gotten better at classroom management. I have become better at teaching writing. I understand how to create assignments in a way that will help students grasp new material, and I’m beginning to learn how to vary my instruction for students’ abilities. On top of it, test scores have improved every year that I have taught at my school. This is a measure of success that is less important to me personally, but because it is tied to so many sources of outside perception, it is key.

My former classmate Suzy de Blois, now a teacher in San Francisco, feels similarly. She writes, “Over four years, I have seriously grown as a teacher – instructionally and emotionally. It’s been exponential. And because I have a serious achievement-based personality, it feels good to see positive results. I feel good about what I do: My students are learning and are able to demonstrate that learning in multiple ways (including the highly-prized standardized exams), I have positive relationships with many of them and their families, and have critical friendships with colleagues who help me improve. Each year, I feel more successful.”

People often claim and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) dictates that the most important factor in improving education is the quality of the teachers. I can’t deny this, but teachers can only be their best when working within a supportive environment. In my own reflection and questioning of colleagues, several support structures emerged as common, albeit unusual in public education, among those of us who stay.

For one, a manageable schedule will go a long way in keeping a teacher in the classroom. My first year teaching at a small school within the Oakland Unified School District, I was expected to teach two sections of ninth grade English, a twelfth grade poetry elective, and an advisory of 18 to 20 mixed grade level students. Sounds pretty straightforward, but it wasn’t. The English classes were 105 minutes long every day and each section had 32 squirrelly ninth graders. Still, I couldn’t complain about that; teachers at comprehensive high schools would be grateful to have only two different classes for which to prepare. But on top of teaching English within that block I was also supposed to instruct my students in physical education. Yes, an integration of PE and English was enough to drive me to the job hunt in the spring of my first year.

Thankfully for me and for the students, we made changes for the next year, and I decided to stay. We split up the English and PE sections (I still taught both, but not simultaneously), dug in to class size reduction funds for ninth grade, and built a team of ninth grade teachers. Since then, I’ve swapped out the PE for a section of Read 180. a reading intervention class more aligned with my education. My manageable schedule allows me to feel sane about lesson planning, grading, student interventions, and ultimately the longevity of my career at my particular small school.

De Blois described a similar situation at her school across the Bay. “Unlike many teachers I know,” she writes, “I have never had more than two classes to prep for per year. And, for three years, I taught the same subjects, which meant I really got to dig in, have multiple chances to succeed (just like the kids!), and feel like I was getting a handle on my curriculum and practice.” Chernack also credits his schedule for allowing him to continue teaching. “In my years at BHS, I’ve been blessed to only teach this one class (Accelerated Reading). This has allowed me to constantly revise and improve upon what I’ve already done. This focus has been a huge part of my growth as a teacher. Many of my colleagues teach so many different classes that they don’t get to master any of them because everything is new.”

Talk to any teacher who has left the profession and you are bound to hear stories of unwieldy schedules, more than 150 student contacts a day, and hundreds of essays or assignments to grade every weekend. No one can sustain that and remain dedicated to their work.

Finally, it comes down to the adults that teachers have the opportunity to work with and learn from. I feel lucky to be able to say that I love my department. We look forward to meeting together in order to build our program across grade levels. We challenge each other’s practice with a balance of compassion and rigor, keeping our students’ needs at the forefront of our work. Such cohesion is unusual and rather recent. It wasn’t until we participated in the Bay Area Coalition of Equitable Schools’ (BAYCES) initiative called Impact 2012 and were anchored by our instructional coach Shane Safir that we were given space within our staff meetings to meet together and do serious work on a regular basis. Because teaching can feel so isolating despite being surrounded by people all day, being a part of a professional learning community bolstered my commitment to teaching and inspired me to improve my practice.

Since she began teaching, de Blois has had a professional learning community built right into her schedule. She explains, “…we have daily Common Planning Time (CPT) and loads of opportunity to do PD, which means that I get regular chances to learn more and reflect on my practice. At first, the daily CPT meant my curriculum was way stronger than it would have been otherwise, since I was put on a grade level team with our strongest teacher at the time.” Regular, systemic planning time is rare as most master schedules and budgets just don’t allow for it.

In contrast to de Blois’ experience, another teacher who left the profession after three years told me about the lack of intellectuality she found within her department. She said that in order to have stayed in the classroom, “there would have to be some interface between the research and the intellectual side of how to teach well, a place for me to have those conversations with other teachers… professionals who were intellectual beings, who were excited by the art of teaching.” Had she been a part of an initiative like Impact 2012 or had common planning time with her colleagues, she may have been able to stay in the classroom longer.

Beyond the department, I feel integral to the success of my whole school because it is a small school. With only fourteen teachers and five support staff, everyone’s opinion matters. Everyone can and will need to take on leadership positions. While this adds to the load I have to take on as a teacher, it also makes me feel more responsible for the outcome. My school feels like a family. I know every single student at my school and they know me. I am invested in the success and improvement of my school, just like I would be in seeing my own family thrive. As de Blois so eloquently puts it, “In many ways, we’re a family, and I feel committed to showing up for them just as I expect them to show up for me.”

Each year hundreds of new teachers decide not to show up again. In Oakland the problem of teacher turnover is standard. The sad truth is that I know one day I will be one of them. I may have almost beat the statistic, but how much longer beyond the five years will I stay? I know I have a better than usual situation within OUSD and within urban education. I keep coming back because I have a workload I can manage for now, colleagues who challenge and inspire me, and goals which I succeed in each year. But is this enough to beat the 50-60 hour work week, the weekly migraines, and the regular anxiety dreams my high stress job invokes? Very few teachers quit because they realize they don’t care; they quit to save themselves. If retaining good teachers is at the core of improving urban education, systemic changes that support this goal are the answer.

When I thought about leaving at the end of my first year, my colleague told me that if I stayed, the students would love me for it even though they had seemingly done everything in their power to drive me out. She was right. Our students need us to commit to them, to offer them unconditional love, and see them through to their success. Teachers are the face of this commitment, and it is my hope in a systemic commitment that keeps me optimistic, a hope that the systems that should hold us up, from the district, to the union, to the state and federal governments will eventually make the same commitment to our youth. This is why we stay.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Cranky Teacher

    This is awesome. Thank you for taking the time to write such a balanced real-world view of our little corner of the world.

  • Nextset

    Reminds me of that horse in “Animal Farm”.

    The reason the teachers walk away – as mentioned here – is that a person can only give and give and give for so long. Even the professional givers wear out.

    And I’m not a professional giver.

    Enjoy this (OUSD Teaching) while you can. When you need something more, consider college instruction. I’ve found the Jr College instructors to be generally happier and more fulfilled than the secondary school teachers.

    Unless the secondary school teacher works at a “good” school. They don’t seem to complain.

  • Ms. J.

    Thank you for writing this. I am going into my tenth year this fall and a lot of what you wrote rang true for me. How wonderful to have an intelligent and reflective expression of some of what is worthwhile as well as what is challenging in our profession.

    And again thanks to Katy because this is a great forum.

  • Teri

    Thanks so much for writing so eloquently what the reality is for so many new teachers. You are lucky to have colleagues who stimulate you intellectually and with whom you can collaborate and to have a manageable schedule. I, too, feel very lucky. I love the people who I work and plan with and I love teaching.

    I hope you stay. You say you know, in the end, you’ll leave, and I so hope that’s not true. You can find ways to minimize your workload without compromising your professional standards and values or your students’ learning. There are weeks, I know personally as an English teacher (I will be entering my 21st year of teaching), when the essays are overwhelming, I need to call parents/guardians, plan new projects and lessons, and in the middle of it all, one of my own kids gets sick or I get sick, or a student has a crisis, or…But in the end, at least for me, I can’t imagine any other career I could have had that would have been so fulfilling and creative. Students, now in their 20s and 30s keep in touch with me and students in high school and college regularly come back and visit me or email me and that lets me know that I am in the right profession, making a difference in other peoples’ lives. As long as I continue to make a difference in my students’ and colleagues’ lives and they continue to make a difference in mine, I’ll continue teaching.

  • Harry Thomas

    You’ve hit the nail on the head by defining the differrence between teaching “sainthood” and teaching “martyrdom”. We all want you to stay a saint and not die a martyr. Thank you.

  • http://jetkatdesign.com Kate

    well done, jill!!

  • turner

    This is a wonderful essay, Ms. Thomas.


  • Curt Douglas

    I am an urban high school English teacher as well, and about to begin my fifth year. I am struck after reading this article by how few of the conditions for success mentioned in it are present at my school site: my work load has rarely been manageable, I have often shuffled between different classes rather than developing mastery of a single course, and efforts to develop an intellectual community of teachers is often thwarted by teacher fatigue. I love my students and my colleagues, but it makes me reflect on why I personally choose to stay. “Sense of mission” is definitely key. Also, I agree that whether it be through a sense of professional community or an opportunity to take on leadership roles, it is important to know that you have an influence in the larger structures of the school.

  • Yumi

    Thank you Jill for sharing your thoughts so eloquently. As a teacher now heading into my 7th year, I still question whether I can make it another year. This internal struggle would not be here if public education was truly valued for communities of color and we were recognized as professionals. I am absolutely committed to my students but that commitment alone can not help me develop as a professional. I appreciate the work we’ve done so far; it’s motivated me to continue my practice.

  • Britt

    Thank you for the encouragement. I’m going into my second year teaching in the inner city in Kansas City and your reflections provide answers to some questions. It’s refreshing to read the very real frustrations of a loving teacher, to sense the distressed tone, and yet walk away knowing that you care no less than the one who “talks from the clouds” as if nothing gets to them. Thank you and please keep fighting.

  • Denise

    Totally uplifting and true! I share many of your frustrations and hopes. I am starting my 3rd year at an alternative charter school in downtown Denver and this is just what i needed before my first day of school tomorrow!

  • Maggie

    Great job on this piece, Jill! I love reading your writing, and I love reading about urban teaching, and I love your inclusion of our cohort’s feelings about their work. I wish that more teachers stuck around long enough to transition to administration so that they could control structures like master-scheduling to support teacher retention. I also wish the media explained how reduced funding for schools directly impacts teaching and learning through increased loss of new teachers during bad economic times.

  • http://ibabuzz.com/education Barbara Tagg

    I am a retired teacher after 34 years and I’m literally thrilled to read your reflections on teaching. I just hope you continue to feel enough satisfaction, knowing you have made a huge difference for a lot of kids, so that you will continue to stay in the field. There’s no more rewarding job in my opinion.
    Wait till you see how many kids you will hear back from over the years (in person, by letter or Facebook!)
    You’ll really know then why you continued to teach!

  • http://www.peterfischl.com Peter L. Fischl

    Dear Teacher Jilln E Thomas ,
    Read about You in Teaching Tolerance Magazine, about you and your brilliant poet students.You can go to google and read my poem :”To the Little Polish Boy Standingt with his arms up”.Type inb GOOGLE: peter Fischl Poem. I like to send You my teaching materials free, Please contact me via email peterlfischl@verizon.net or (909)-393 -4078
    Best Wishes
    Peter L. Fischl