My first teaching job was at Forest Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, an elite Catholic girls’ prep school in Bellevue, Washington. Sr. Bunny Flick hired me in 1976 to teach Art part-time. She was eager to see her students both challenged and supported in their education. She never seemed quite comfortable in her role as a school administrator, but she was kind to me. Midway through my time at the school, Bunny left for a new job and, though she might not even remember me, I still check in on her online from time to time. She is a generous, good-hearted woman committed to education. I wish I could let her know that I think of her patience and guidance, and I've continued to grow and I'm a better teacher now than when she hired me.
My current principal is also committed as an educator and as a supporter of educators. I mention this because I am about to criticize administrators, and I want to make clear that my concerns do not apply to all administrators and they certainly do not apply to my favorites.
I have written elsewhere defending teachers. I chose to become a teacher because I realized that I was good at it, and that teaching was a role I had been committing to at every opportunity since I was young. I have worked at the profession for a long time and I think I’m mostly a good teacher.
Bad teachers are rare, I contend, because they usually don't last very long in the profession. Shortly after I posted an essay about this, a student came to me, having read it, and asked if I really believed bad teachers were rare. Well, yes, I do. I think most teachers are doing the best they can and most of them are doing a good job. There are exceptions, but here’s a bigger problem: There are bad and indifferent administrators.
This matters to teaching because, other than the teachers themselves, only administrators have the position and power to improve teaching.
This is where I admit there are bad teachers, and it’s true that some teachers are mean and some have unrealistic expectations or absurdly high standards. These aren’t necessarily the bad ones. Even mean teachers take the choir to State and students learn to let the meanness roll off their back. “Unrealistic” can become reality in about two flicks and then students are doing stuff no one else thought they were capable of. Students survive the high standards, and sometimes they even thrive because of them. So for now, let’s set aside the “mean” and expectant ones.
Let’s look at the teachers who wish they were doing something else—something else in particular or anything else. These are the teachers who really wanted to go on playing high school sports for the rest of their lives, or who thought teaching would be an easy job, or that working with children would be good practice for being a mom, or that they would have weekends and holidays off. There are teachers who don’t really care much about their subject. The ones who fell into the job and never really wanted to teach to begin with. The ones who don’t like students. The ones who don’t want to work that hard. And the ones who discover they simply don’t like teaching.
Most teachers who are unsuited to the profession don’t last. In fact, teaching has among the highest attrition rates of any profession in the United States. Studies find various results but up to 50% of teachers leave the profession within five years. Imagine if, after five years of training and with less than five years of work, half the plumbers, electricians, and lawyers chose another profession. (That this is not true for teachers in some other countries might give us pause. In Finland, for example, teachers are not paid differently but the job has more respect and time and top college students flock to teaching, and they stick.)
What do teachers who leave the profession do instead? Tend bar, start a small business, sell real estate, join the family business, study law. I've considered some of those jobs and others, but I am forever becoming a teacher.
Some teachers become administrators. My observations suggest that, like the reasons for entering education to begin with, there are less productive reasons for studying administration. Some would-be administrators are bad teachers who don’t want to choose another field. Some are looking for a job where they don’t have to work so closely with students. Some are looking for more money. Some want power. Some see administration as a natural advancement, like becoming the manager of a retail store. Some want more respect from their community, more autonomy in how they spend their days, or less face time with children. These are all good reasons, I suppose, but not one of them has to do with wanting a larger roll in improving education and in supporting the educational process with teachers, students, families, and communities, which are better reasons for becoming an administrator.
Administrators work hard. Most of them work hours as long as mine and for another month out of the year. They, like me, are never quite off the clock and always engaged with educational concerns, even during down time.
But some administrators are not skilled at their jobs. Some can’t manage the thousand discrete and sometimes competing demands of community, teachers, students, and finances. Some were well-intentioned but bad teachers and perform no more effectively with peers than they did with students. Some cannot imagine how to get from where they are to where they need to go. They have no vision. Some see the world in black and white and cannot cope with an occupation that is many shadings. Some do not actually like or feel comfortable around students or their parents. Some do not even like children. Some do not respect the choice of others to continue teaching instead of seeking a “promotion” to administration.
Years ago The Oregonian published an Op-Ed about the disrespect that teachers face every day, including the disrespect from administrators with the attitude that if teachers were really smart, why are they still teaching? I get that a lot. Teachers are sometimes treated as if they were their students. For eleven years I was a substitute teacher in my district and there were principals who treated their teachers like the children they taught. This was especially grating when I subbed at an elementary school where the principal treated teachers like young children. (And if you’ve never worked all day with a room of 26 nine-year-olds, you really do not know what exhaustion is.) Because I teach children does not make me a child myself.
I’ve also been patronized and ignored by college professors, including people who teach at community colleges, who have never published anything of significance, and who have barely been alive as long as I have been teaching. I merely teach high school, so my experience, concerns, and observations matter less than theirs. Perhaps I do not matter at all.
Elsewhere I have complained about the expectation of some people that everyone must commit to teaching as if it were a sacred vocation rather than a job. Sr. Bunny Flick is a nun. I am not even Catholic. I love my job, though it is not a sacred obligation, it's something I choose. But there is some whiff of truth in that expectation of commitment. No one does this job to get rich, but it is an occupation that should suit the practitioner, one they will do their best for even in the moments when it's hard and unrewarding, and they should be paid decently for their expertise and responsibility. (No teacher expects to get rich, but securely middle class is not an unreasonable expectation.) I also think it's a reasonable expectation that if teachers do their job well they should be treated with the respect due to anyone in a skilled profession. Teaching first graders is not easier than teaching college Physics. Teaching is not easier than acting as an administrator. We all work hard in education and administrators can make things easier for everyone. Or not.
Above: Apropos of nothing, a little baby blanket I wove last fall for the newborn of a former student and friend.