In August 2018, I started my 11th year of classroom teaching. At a decade, the magnitude of teaching is striking. Over 1,500 students have entered my classrooms. I’ve read the equivalent of hundreds of Russian novels’ worth of compositions, shook hands tens of thousands of times, and used swimming pools’ worth of hand sanitizer. My mental portfolio is overfilled with fond memories, triumphs, and pride.
But at 10 years, it’s also easy to be exhausted and to feel lonely. I recall a conversation with my father early on in my journey to become a teacher. While he preferred law, he eventually recognized that teaching felt like a calling to me. He professed to understand—but was stuck on what he called the longevity of teaching.
“I get that you want to teach,” he said, “but what does that look like in 10, 20 years? Do you teach forever?” At the time, his questions felt like mere paternalism; now I recognize a kind of wisdom in them.
While many professionals follow a career trajectory, teachers—as distinct from others in the education sector—lack a clear path for promotion. Friends who work in banking or finance started out as assistant analysts and are floating upward toward account management. My friends in the military have the most obvious progression. Even for those in the creative and freelance fields, the jobs become higher stakes and more prestigious: Stylists and photographers have become art directors or creative directors. Teachers, however, remain teachers.
And while it’s true that education has hierarchies and trajectories, they tend toward nominal promotions and distance teachers from their core duties. Serving as department chair, a position assigned either by seniority or nomination, offers mainly increased bureaucracy and additional meetings, in my experience—it’s usually more about disseminating predetermined policies than shaping new ones.
The same can be said for much of the committee and panel work: It’s peripheral and adds to the existing teaching duties. Meanwhile, the myriad degree programs, research institutes, and travel study options can enrich your teaching and, in some districts, even add to your paycheck. But they aren’t vertical promotions, nor do they open up new vistas for exploration, growth, and impact.
Many teachers do leave the classroom for roles in administration or counseling—underappreciated and overworked positions, frankly, where their interactions with students shift toward tracking academic progress or meting out discipline. Others move to district offices, where the connection with students exists more as a formal concept than concrete practice. More and more, though, I see teachers leave entirely.
They go to government work—with its crystal-clear ladders—or education consulting in corporate environments. Of the cohort of teachers I graduated with, it appears I am the only one still teaching. Some left because teaching was not for them. But many left because three, five, or 10 years into teaching they could already see the end of the line: They saw the next quarter century or more and realized that the only change they could imagine would be a change of scenery—a new classroom in a new city. Their job would remain the same.
What do we do about this? Fortunately, there are lots of models, both international and domestic, for how to reinvigorate American teaching.
The German and Finnish Models
The German school system has multiple kinds of schools, especially at the secondary level, that align closely with student interests and, importantly, emphasize vocational and professional training. This model encourages teachers to work in schools that closely track to their own skills.
Furthermore, the smaller course and student loads typical of many German teachers encourage them to engage in other work, like tutoring at-risk students or collaborating to develop policies around school culture or special needs services—which are then folded into the teachers’ core duties. (Though this secondary labor has increased, leading to more burnout.)
While I was in Germany, it was not uncommon for me to see a teacher of Latin, for example, who spent part of her day teaching, with the rest divided among administrative working groups and small group or one-on-one sessions with students.
During my time in Finland, I became familiar with a species rare in the American environment: administrators who still teach. While some American schools permit flexibility in administrative duties, my own research uncovered a large number of Finnish practitioners in this dynamic role. There’s something to be said for the increased responsibility that comes with a headmastership or principalship that includes the opportunity to experiment in the classroom.
Teachers in schools like this claim that this model helps place teaching at the center of the profession, creates administrators who are more fully embedded in the conduct of the school, makes the mechanisms of power more accessible, and allows teachers to move upward without abandoning the classroom wholesale.
Lessons From U.S. Charter Networks
I think there are also lessons from the flourishing charter networks across the country that public schools and traditionally structured private schools would do well to learn. Local control—the ability to make policy decisions for the school at the school—is a complicated but freeing change. When the work of district offices—testing, curriculum and instruction, teacher oversight and evaluation, and student services, for example—is folded into the work of school sites, the gulf between school and district staff is bridged. Teachers can split their time between classroom instruction and administrative or policy-centric work. Not every teacher might want to pivot to other work for a portion of their time, but I imagine a great many would.
Secondly, I think schools should establish mentorship and master teaching as a more robust path. Currently, new teachers in California complete a program called Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment (BTSA), which is designed to support best practices and develop curriculum. The experience of teachers in mentorship programs is wildly varied, depending on the mentor and the time allotted. But if schools built this type of mentorship into a fully fleshed-out program, and worked with not just new teachers but struggling ones (or even all teachers), quality would likely improve and teachers who were interested in teacher education would be able to pursue this path without leaving teaching.
The Role of Unions
Lastly, we might reconsider the role and function of unions in helping to shape a more modern, versatile teaching workforce. More specifically, I think teacher unions ought to aim to protect the integrity and moral value of the teaching profession and work to help create a diversified career path. Even though I’m a proud union member, I admire how schools without unions are able to evaluate and assess teachers, train those who can be helped, and work to remove those who cannot. A more rigorous profession is, to my mind, one with more innovation, intellectual reward, and challenge.
This isn’t an exhaustive catalog of potential changes to the teaching profession, obviously. Regardless of the reforms, and regardless of where they originate, I think it’s clear that teaching is overdue for systemic change. The sheer number of exhausted and departing teachers is indicative of the need for broader shifts.
Our schools aim to serve the society and economy of tomorrow yet more closely resemble the systems of the last century—and the century before that. And if we decline to change teaching in any meaningful way, those teachers who want to teach but also want something more will have nowhere to go but out.