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March 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 6

Special Topic / Still Teaching in Spite of It All

Given the difficult conditions that so many teachers face on the job, why do some teachers persist?

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Media reports are full of explanations for why public education suffers today, with teachers and students bearing the brunt of the criticism. The situation has become even more problematic as a result of rigid accountability and the marketization of public education. Given teachers' loss of professional autonomy, a general lack of respect for the profession, and an obsession with high-stakes testing, the sociopolitical context of public education has become bleak.
Compounding such difficulties, teachers face another challenge: As schools experience greater standardization, U.S. classrooms are becoming increasingly diverse. The Children's Defense Fund (CDF) found that children of color currently constitute the majority of 1- and 2-year-olds in the United States. By 2019, children of color will be the majority of all children in the nation (CDF, 2014).
Linguistic diversity is also on the rise. One in four children in the United States speaks a language other than English at home, and more than 9 percent of all children in U.S. classrooms are emergent bilinguals (Kena et al., 2014).
Finally, the changing demographics in the United States complicate the issue of inequality. According to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau, one in five children lives in poverty, with 40 percent of those living in extreme poverty (CDF, 2014).
Although this growing cultural diversity should be heralded as a good thing—after all, diversity has always driven change, innovation, and progress in the United States—teachers are often at a loss as to how to face the dual challenges of standardization and diversity. It should come as no surprise, then, that teachers are leaving the profession in droves (Ingersoll, Merrill, & Stuckey, 2014).
The pertinent question, then, is not so much why teach, but, rather, why teach now?

Teachers Speak Out

In spite of difficult conditions, many teachers choose to stay. Why do they persist? To answer this question, I contacted a number of teacher educators from across the United States and asked each to nominate a teacher who remained in the profession despite the many obstacles he or she faced. I asked the nominated teachers why they chose to stay, and 23 of them responded in writing.
Hailing from different grade levels and content areas and diverse in experience, race, and ethnicity, they work with students who are equally diverse. Their essays reveal an acute awareness of their loss of autonomy, standardization pressures, and the growing surveillance of their work. They're nevertheless hopeful about the role they play in society, their communities, and especially their students' lives.
Mary Ginley is a case in point. In the classroom for 42 years, Mary wonders about the future of public schools and the young people who may decide not to become teachers. She laments, "Why would anyone with any brains and imagination ever want to be a teacher?"
Nevertheless, the teachers who work in what are often the most challenging schools respond with determination to make a difference in the lives of their students and to uphold the promise of public education.
Here's what they said.

Why Teach Now?

For the Kids

Eileen Blanco Dougherty, a New York City teacher of children with special needs, says that teachers typically answer the question of why they teach in a quick and simple way: for the kids. Other reasons that emerged in the teachers' essays revolved around love, support, and advocacy, words not necessarily associated with the school reform movement that has, instead, popularized such terms as AYP, data walls, and underperforming schools.
Greg Michie, who recently returned to the classroom after 12 years as a teacher educator, was struck by the new vocabulary. He writes,
I knew that the district was scrambling to align everything, perhaps even the daily lunch menu, to the Common Core State Standards. I knew that I'd probably hear far less in the coming year about democratic education or social justice than I would about current buzzwords like text complexity, accountable talk, and close reading.
In spite of his growing frustration with what has happened to public education, Greg concludes,
All kids—especially kids our public schools have too often failed—deserve an education that honors and validates who they are, that makes room for their questions and concerns, that challenges them to think deeply, that helps them find meaning in a sometimes hostile and confusing world.
Vanessa Burgos-Kelly, an elementary school teacher in South Carolina, writes about how the testing frenzy almost destroyed her passion for teaching. After taking stock of the situation, she redirected her efforts to make school more relevant for her 4th and 5th graders, putting testing in its proper and secondary place.
She and her sister, Jennifer Burgos-Carnes, also a teacher, composed their essay together and described how their invisibility as young Latinas in their South Carolina schools spurred them to develop strong identities, as well as to become teachers. They show how affirming students' cultural identities can make the difference between hope and despair, for both themselves and their students.

To Help Kids Heal

Matt Hicks, a high school English teacher in Georgia, describes how he came to understand both his white privilege and his native citizen privilege through teaching and coaching his Mexican-American immigrant students, a good number of whom are undocumented. Now a fierce advocate for students who may not have others working on their behalf, Matt helps them navigate the college admission experience—a particularly tricky process for undocumented students—and works with them to organize rallies and other activities. In this way, he helps his students heal from some of the difficult experiences they've endured.
Sharim Hannegan-Martinez, an English and ethnic studies teacher in Oakland, California, writes about healing as part of teaching—about the role of loving relationships in helping students cope with, and heal from, traumatic stressors both in and out of school. "Literacy saved my life," she writes, "which means that, by default, its absence could have ruined it." Because her schooling experience had been mostly negative, she chose to teach:
That is precisely why I became a teacher: because I believed deeply in the power of words, of literacy, of healing, of transformation, of agency, of community, of resistance, and of love, in spite of schools. I became a teacher because I wanted to be the type of adult I never had; in a way, I wanted to be there for the 12-year-old me. I wanted to help her heal, tell her that it wasn't her fault, teach her to read and write, teach her how to forgive herself, help her to find her voice.

For Love

Working in a context that couldn't be more different—a district encompassing 3,100 square miles of hills and prairies in South Dakota—Missy Urbaniak writes about the love she has for the land and for the children she teaches. Missy teaches children from kindergarten through 8th grade in a one-room country school, following in the footsteps of two of her great grandmothers who also taught in one-room schoolhouses.
Despite the daily challenges—which include encounters with rattlesnakes and porcupines, occasionally running out of propane for the heater, lack of contact with other rural teachers, encroaching standardization, and the complexities of teaching children of various grades together—she's grateful to have what she calls her "dream job." Because of the setting in which she works, she can teach more authentically. "I do not look at these children and think, 'These are students,'" she writes. "I look at them and think, 'These are my children.'"
Mary Jade Haney is an elementary school teacher in South Carolina who has taught for the past 17 years. She describes her staunch determination to "create spaces of hope" for her students. Like all teachers, she is affected by the current reform agenda and has seen the pendulum swing from one side to the other many times before: "I have learned a very important lesson, and that lesson is 'duck and cover.'" Mary Jade explains that although she needs to heed mandates and standards, these are not the things that motivate her:
In my classroom, my world, the most important people are not the policymakers and textbook companies; they are my students and their families. This is how I navigate the stormy seas as I try to calm the national storm that rages against teachers like me.
Mary Jade demonstrates love for her students by developing creative lessons and other learning opportunities. For instance, she coordinated a trip for students, parents, and grandparents to travel to Canada by motor coach. They went to Niagara Falls, visited a butterfly pavilion, and exchanged U.S. dollars for Canadian currency, among many other experiences. Everyone wrote daily responses, reflections, and observations in their writers' notebooks.
She and her colleagues also collaborated to form a drama team of 1st through 5th grade students who created a flash mob performance on the steps of the state capitol building as well as in other venues. Mary Jade does all these things for her students and their future. "I teach," she writes, "because I am in a profession that balances the universe."

To Fight Back

Teachers have found numerous ways to fight back against the constant demands on their time, lack of respect they feel, oppressive conditions that many of their students face, and growing rigid accountability. Sometimes, fighting back is quiet and happens in individual classrooms; sometimes it's public and collective.
Take Jesse Hagopian, a history teacher at Garfield High School in Seattle, Washington, and author of More Than a Score (2015), a new book on high-stakes testing. When Washington State announced in 2012 that it would hold a special legislative session to decide how to further slash the education and health-care budgets, Jesse was arrested for delivering citizens' arrest warrants to members of the state House Ways and Means Committee. The protesters charged legislators with failing to adhere to the Washington State Constitution, which declares that education is the state's "paramount duty."
After Jesse's arrest, hundreds of students with handmade signs proclaiming "Fund Our Future" and "No More Cuts" walked out of the school. It was, Jesse said, "one of the greatest moments of my teaching career." He and his colleagues made headlines in 2014 by organizing the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) test boycott. The boycott resulted in the school system canceling the test for Seattle high school students, an action that had repercussions across the United States.
Other teachers are social justice advocates in different ways. Consider Mary Cowhey, teacher, author of Black Ants and Buddhists: Thinking Critically and Teaching Differently in the Primary Grades (2006), and community organizer. After teaching 1st and 2nd grade for 12 years, she became a Title 1 4th grade math teacher in 2010. In her new classroom, she reencountered Jasmine, one of her former 2nd grade students. To Mary's dismay, Jasmine was still adding by counting ones, couldn't double or halve a number, and couldn't explain the meaning of even and odd numbers. Mary says, "Years ago, I would have thought, 'Jasmine's trying hard, and she's making progress.'" But after one mathematics conversation with the 4th grader, Mary realized she had failed her.
Mary now sees access to mathematics as an equity issue. She focuses on K–2 early intervention to ensure that all students can be active participants in the mathematical conversation. For her, social justice in math also means organizing families. In 2007, along with some parents, Mary started a group called "Familias Con Poder" (Families with Power). Parents and guardians in the group, who were all English language learners and most of whom had not graduated from high school, started a morning math club. The club serves from 25 to 40 children for an hour before school twice each week.
Mary has also pushed back by organizing a professional learning community focused on assessment for learning. One product of their work was a schoolwide initiative on the growth mind-set, a stance that holds that attributes such as intelligence and athletic ability can be changed through effort (Dweck, 2014). The initiative educates students and families as well as teachers and volunteers.
Mary now defines social justice in a broader way: as cofacilitating mindfulness courses, engaging with parents to understand the last round of food stamp cuts, or meeting with a local congressperson to brainstorm ways to support families in starting plots at the community garden. She remains critical of demands for "more data" and more standardized tests, writing,
We don't need more data that continue to compare students to each other. We don't need more standardized test data to keep telling the kids in the 95th percentile how superior they are (really?!) and the kids who score below average that they still (surprise!) "need improvement."

What This Means for Policymakers

These teachers compel us to listen. Teachers are, after all, one of the United States' greatest resources. Yet they're absent from nearly all conversations about school reform. And although teachers' union representatives are sometimes included in these panels—as they should be—it's rare to find individual teachers, who should also be present, serving on these bodies.
Another takeaway is this: These teachers believe deeply in U.S. public education as the foundation of a democratic society. Yet they recognize that many so-called reform policies are not really about providing a better and more equitable education for all students; instead, these policies often favor the corporations that profit from those policies and the foundations supporting them.
Although the teachers who speak to us here differ from one another in many ways, they reflect a growing group of teachers who are fed up with business as usual, who are demanding a better education for their students and decent working conditions—not to mention respect—for themselves. They believe in the potential benefits of public education, and they're advocates for social justice, providing multiple examples of what it looks like in practice, from quiet advocacy to public demonstrations at state capitals.
Another implication relates to teacher recruitment. Although scores on teacher tests might say something about the candidate's content knowledge—an essential characteristic of excellent teachers, to be sure—and their college grades should be taken into account—because, after all, we want smart people to go into teaching—if we focus only on these things and fail to look at others, we miss out on some of the most important characteristics of exceptional teachers.
What about the candidates' philosophy of education? What do they think of students from diverse backgrounds, and how can they be superb teachers to all of them? How do they advocate for their students? Do they really believe all children can achieve to high levels? These are the kinds of questions we should think about when recruiting teachers because these are the teachers who will teach now despite conditions that may test their determination but will not break their spirit.

Change Is in the Air

There's a discernible change in the air concerning public education. More teachers are becoming activists for true reform. More parents are "opting out" of mandatory high-stakes tests for their children. More principals and superintendents are refusing to go along with blaming teachers and their students for the results of policies that were poorly thought out in the first place. More reporters are becoming critical of current policies (Merrow, 2014). More researchers are questioning the myths surrounding education reform (Berliner & Glass, 2014). And more citizens on both the political left and right are unconvinced about the potential benefits of the Common Core State Standards.
But these changes, by themselves, may not be enough to stem the tide of privatization. Remaking public education in the image of business has been on a fast track for at least a couple of decades now, and turning it around will take not only the most dedicated and passionate teachers, but also more concerned citizens, administrators, teacher educators, policymakers, and the media to remind the United States what public education is about.
In the meantime, more teachers will become disheartened and cynical and leave the profession. More for-profit charter schools will be created, and more vouchers will find their way into private schools. Corporations will continue to rake in millions of dollars on testing regimes that require children to sit for 20, 30, and even 50 days of testing. And the media will continue its drumbeat of chastising the nation's teachers and students for the sorry state of public education.
In the midst of all this, some teachers will continue to teach. It's not public acclaim or private fortune that will keep them in their classrooms and schools. But as a nation, we would do well to make certain that the best among our teachers remain. As it is, some will be hard pressed to do so.

Their Best Shot

Mary Ginley, introduced at the beginning of this article, might have been one of those teachers who decided to leave. An exceptional teacher and a former Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, she was nonetheless discouraged in her final years of teaching. She tells a story about a student, Jack, whom she kept talking to about going to college even though his plan was to get a job at Dollar General when he finished school. One day he complained, "My grandma says I'm just gonna end up in prison. You're wasting your time on me." But she kept it up, suggested he think about law school, that he'd make a great personal injury lawyer. "He may end up at Dollar General or in prison," Mary notes, "but not before I gave him my best shot."
What might the outcome have been if Mary hadn't been there? What if other teachers don't give Jack their best shot?
These are the kinds of stories that the teachers' essays revealed—and we need to pay attention to them. Although she was frustrated and disillusioned in the last years of her career because the profession she had entered 42 years earlier had changed so drastically, Mary Ginley writes that she would still do it today because
even today, even with all the insanity, all the rules, all the poorly designed textbooks, all the directives not to bother teaching anything that is not tested, in spite of everything, there are kids out there who need good teachers.
Editor's note: Portions of this article originally appeared in Why We Teach Now by Sonia Nieto (Teachers College Press, 2015).

Berliner, D. C., & Glass, G. V. (2014). 50 myths and lies that threaten America's public schools: The real crisis in education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Children's Defense Fund. (2014). The state of America's children. Washington, DC: Author.

Cowhey, M. (2006). Black ants and Buddhists: Thinking critically and teaching differently in the primary grades. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books.

Hagopian, J. (2015). More than a score: The new uprising against high-stakes testing. Chicago: Haymarket.

Ingersoll, R., Merrill, L., & Stuckey, D. (2014). Seven trends: The transformation of the teaching force. CPRE Report (#RR-80). Philadelphia: Consortium for Policy Research in Education, University of Pennsylvania.

Kena, G., Aud, S., Johnson, F., Wang, X., Zhang, J., Rathbun, A., et al. (2014). The condition of education 2014 (NCES 2014-083). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

Merrow, J. (2014). Some predictions as the new school year arrives. [blog post]. Retrieved from http://takingnote.learningmatters.tv/?p=7151

End Notes

1 The teachers cited here share their stories about why they continue to teach, despite the obstacles, in my newest book, Why We Teach Now (Teachers College Press, 2015), a sequel to one I wrote a decade ago—Why We Teach (Teachers College Press, 2005).

Sonia Nieto has contributed to educational leadership.

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