Editor’s note: Civil Beat welcomes Lory Peroff as a new contributor to our Hawaii Teacher column, providing the perspective of an elementary school instructor.
It’s Tuesday and we are already exhausted. I enter the room to see freshly wiped desks with Fig bars and a bag of double-stuffed Oreos piled invitingly in the center.
A faint smell of Clorox wipes hangs in the air as the grade level team assembles for weekly collaboration. The group consists of two student teachers, one first-year instructor and three veterans with a combined 50-plus years of teaching..
We talk through important reminders, upcoming school events, and touch base about how our students are doing with identifying angles. As the meeting wraps up, the first-year teacher says, “I have something to share.”
Hawaii teachers rally during contract negotiations in 2013.
Courtesy of Susan Kay Anderson
He talks about a recent parent interaction and gets some advice from us veterans. Then he adds, “I take it home with me, stuff that happens in school. I feel like I take my students’ problems and internalize them and make the problems my own.”
A contemplative hush fills the room. The quiet is broken when he asks, “How do you do it? After all these years in teaching, what has made you stay in the profession?”
With so much attention being paid to why teachers leave, I thought it would be worthwhile to investigate why teachers stay. I began an informal crusade during yard duty, at the copy machine and in hallways.
I expected summer vacation, convenient hours and benefits to be among the top reasons, but I was surprised by what I heard. After speaking with 10 veteran teachers from three public schools, trends emerged:
• Lifelong learning: Several teachers shared that they remain in the profession because they simply love learning. “My brain is always working. I love that aspect of my job,” said one 13-year veteran. A 20-year teacher echoed the sentiment: “As the curriculum changes, I have to learn new things. I love the learning aspect of teaching, I feel like a student myself.”
“Learning new things every year keeps me young,” said a 23-year teacher.
• Supportive administration: Many seasoned teachers actually applaud their administrators. “In my school, I feel that I have the ability to make autonomous decisions,” said one.
“I probably wouldn’t have stayed if I didn’t have such a supportive principal,” said another. “It has made a world of difference to me. When faced with challenging situations it is very reassuring to be able to go to a supportive administration for help and guidance.”
• For the greater good: The value of educating future leaders is a driving force for some to stay in the profession.
One teacher said her reason for staying in the classroom for nearly three decades is political: “I believe that high quality education is crucial in order to maintain a thriving democracy.”
Others echoed the sentiment that we need educated citizens able to make informed decisions to keep our democracy intact. Another teacher said, “I stay in the job because I believe in a bright future, and that starts with teaching children how to be not only learners but leaders.”
• To make a difference: A resounding belief of many veteran instructors is that teaching is meaningful and important work. One said teaching is “not just pushing papers. It’s human. It’s about helping children become the good human beings you know they can be.”
Teachers feel validated by notes from parents and students acknowledging the positive effect they had on a child’s life. “Letters from parents and responses from families are very rewarding,” said one. “It’s a good feeling knowing you have made a difference in a child’s life.”
• Joy: Asked why she stayed, one teacher of 32 years replied simply, “It is pure joy.” Others reported how happy the students make them every day.
“When the students take something you taught them and apply it to their life, nothing could bring me greater happiness,” said one.
Several teachers commented on how funny their students are. One kindergarten teacher told me, “I laugh with my kids every single day. Not a small laugh, but a big belly laugh.”
Joy won’t pay the bills, but many teachers keep coming back because the job makes them happy.
I am deeply grateful to the first-year teacher who first raised this question. It led to fruitful conversations with outstanding educators and reaffirmed why I became a teacher nearly 17 years ago.
Training programs should require new teachers to interview veterans about why they stayed in the profession.
I hope every fledgling teacher gets an opportunity to sit face to face with a seasoned teacher of 30 years and see the passion she still has for the profession and hear her say, “At the end of your life, you just want to know you made a difference with your time here on Earth. I believe in my heart that I have.”
Lory Walker Peroff is a fourth grade teacher at Waikiki Elementary School and a Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow who believes writing is not only enjoyable but essential. She lives in Honolulu with her husband, two energetic daughters, three chickens, two ducks and one peahen.