Aspiration and Teaching

I attended an inspiring event Wednesday night, the Education Pioneers’ End-of-Summer Showcase. The last speaker of the evening was former Pioneer, Justin Steele, who talked about the importance of one’s own personal story in motivating us to do the work we do.  That’s where I’d like to end my blog run.

My father was a teacher until his recent retirement. My mother was a teacher as well. I only remember one time that they expressed complete and unified disappointment in me— it was when I told them I wanted to become a teacher. The chasm between the reaction I anticipated and the one I received seared the conversation into the foreground of my memory. Teaching, they drilled into me frequently thereafter, is not for smart and ambitious people. I disagreed with that statement then, and I still disagree. I think too highly of them and too many other teachers I’ve known along the way to accept it. Yet, I understand why they said it. (I’m one of the thousands (millions?) who entered teaching and LOVED it, but who ultimately left because the world outside the classroom was the only way to find the continued challenge and career growth I was seeking.) For me, their message created a straightforward imperative: The teaching profession needs to fundamentally change. Quite simply, I’d rather take that on than admit that they were right.

My mom died 17 years ago this week, about half a lifetime ago for me.  People often ask when I started Teach Plus. The real answer is then. Yes, I started Teach Plus because I believe we can do more to retain effective teachers in years 3-10. I started Teach Plus because I believe young teachers, the future of the profession, need to have more of a voice in policy. But the heart of why I started Teach Plus because a profession into which veterans are ashamed to send their own children doesn’t work.

Through hundreds of applications to our Policy Fellows program, I’ve learned that my story is not rare. The topics of status and aspiration came up frequently with our Policy Fellows (all current teachers). When I sought bloggers for this week, I asked if anyone wanted to try a post on those issues. A couple of teachers wrote back, capturing the prevailing group sentiment: While it’s a big deal, they were uncomfortable discussing their personal ambitions in a public format—it wasn’t kid-focused. There’s a concern that their desire for a profession that offers “more” (more recognition, more growth, more money) will contribute to a negative stereotype of Generation Y. I think my story illustrates that these status issues affect Boomers and newbies alike.

I recently had the privilege of hearing a talk by Jean Martin of the Corporate Leadership Council. Their research across many fields, including teaching, has led them to identify three key areas that work needs to address in order to help employees enhance their commitment and reach their potential.

  • The first is engagement. In my mind, teaching kids is the ultimate in engaging work.
  • The second is ability. Professional development and mentoring could certainly be improved, but as a field, we have a commitment to helping teachers develop their skills and ability.
  • The third is aspiration. This is where teaching fails. Things like TAP, PAR and NBPTS are a start, but not nearly enough.

As Justin Steele so eloquently discussed the other night, every person is in the process of creating their own personal story, a story that makes sense of their experiences, is dynamic, and allows them to feel purposeful and successful. Teachers give the ultimate gift in helping to create a positive story for the children with whom they work.  If we hope to keep the best among them, we need new teachers to be able to see a second chapter of their own story in the classroom– one that values their effectiveness with students and rewards them for their contributions.  At Teach Plus, we believe such a story need not be fiction. And that’s our story.  Thanks for the air time this week!

–Guestblogger Celine Coggins, Founder of Teach Plus

3 Replies to “Aspiration and Teaching”

  1. Celine,
    My career has spanned 4 decades–I am starting my 36th year of teaching next week and people keep asking me why I don’t retire. My answer is that I love what I do and when the day comes that I’d rather stay home than go teach and learn, I’ll then retire.

    I agree with your three areas that work needs to address. Too often educators are NOT engaged, nor do they have opportunities to learn in ways that matter,and they certainly do not feel honored or appreciated.

    Being a lifelong learner absolutely helps engage one in the work, but the power of constantly being stimulated through interactions with other thinkers and exposure to new ideas is crucial to the continued growth of us as teachers. We need the chance to share our ideas and thoughts and lessons and units and feel honored for being in this profession. Veterans need to reach out to the newbies as well, to honor THEIR knowledge and instincts.

    I appreciated reading your story-my Mom was a teacher as well, and I have felt blessed by that heritage. I was also blessed that I received some incredible mentoring fairly early in my career, and work in a system that honors learning for adults as well as children. (see my recent blog, What I Did On My Summer Vacation at Thanks for sharing!

  2. This is an excellent post as is the one before it. These posts address the number one problem with K-12 education today: the inability to recruit and retain talented people into the teaching profession.

    I am a retired teacher. A few years ago I reunited with a woman with whom I started my career in 1964. She was proud of her status as retired principal and said this to me, “Remember when you said that you would not be satisfied with teaching. You were going to become something important.” I was shocked to know that I had uttered those words and answered this way:

    “I fell in love with teaching young children and never wanted to do anything else. Also I published a book on reading and raised two wonderful sons.” She said nothing further but I felt stunned. Although she too had spent a lifetime in education, she was voicing a belief shared by so many Americans: Teaching people under the age of 18 is not a real job; it’s not a career. Had I shared that belief at one time? Need we look further than this to understand our less-than-stellar system of education?

    I taught for 42 years before retiring in 2007. For most of those years I found my job exciting, challenging and enormously fulfilling. For many years I woke up at 5:00 a.m. with eager anticipation for another day with my first-graders. I arrived at school at 7:00 and left around 4:00. When my sons were little I forced myself to devote a few hours a day to them, but I am sorry to say they did not get the best part of me. Fortunately for them, my husband spent lots of time with them and so they grew up to be all they I could have hoped for. I like to think that I have been rewarded for my devotion to children less fortunate than my own.

    Throughout my career I found it difficult to focus on anything not related to school. On Saturdays I took my sons with me to Teachers’ Supplies so I could purchase the latest books and materials. On Sundays I often spent the day planning for the following week. To me, it was all enjoyable and easy to do because that’s what I wanted to do. During the summers, each vacation was planned with school in mind. Yes, I was aware that teaching wasn’t financially rewarding or high status, but I loved it so much that I actually pitied people in other lines of work. Often I’d be reminded that most people did not really like their jobs so I considered myself to be in the lucky minority. As I would say frequently to colleagues: “Who else goes to work each day to be met with so much love?”

    About twenty years ago I happened to read an article written by a professor at my graduate school. She had taken a year off from her university position to take a job as a first-grade teacher. She found the experience so unpleasant that she said she’d rather “slit my throat” than go back to that kind of work. What bothered her most was the lack of professional respect and autonomy. When she decided to teach math, instead of reading, first thing in the morning, as opposed to the afternoon, the principal bristled. Apparently he did not like having his authority and judgment questioned. He hated having the college professor on his campus and showed his hostility to her.

    I remember being perplexed by that article and almost wrote to the professor explaining how a teacher could just close her door and do whatever she wanted, as long as she didn’t let anyone know. I saw nothing wrong with that kind of reasoning at the time.

    I started “waking up” after the No Child Left Behind legislation was passed. Soon administrators were invading my classroom telling me what to do and how to do it. Suddenly I was expected to drill children on test items and to keep the children’s noses to the grindstone for the entire day. The nadir of my career came in 2006 when a young administrator came into my classroom and marked me as “not teaching to the standards” because I was showing my students a video of The Nutcracker (purchased by me) in anticipation of a live concert the next day (paid for by me). Because I was 65 years old at the time, I just tore up the evaluation, ignored the administrator and announced my retirement. After all my wonderful years, I left on a sour note.

    Because we are in a recession right now, we probably won’t have much trouble staffing classrooms with talented teachers. However, once our economic troubles are over we’ll find that it will be almost impossible to fill the positions vacated by the Baby Boom women who had few career choices prior to the 1970s. Young women will never put up with the sexist practices that have been so prevalent in K-12. We no longer have a captive workforce. And that’s a good thing.

    It’s not so good for children, though. The present attitude of disdain and disrespect for teachers will backfire badly. The best thing President Obama and the “reformers” can do for education is to attract the “best and the brightest” and find a way to help them feel valued as professionals. Nothing, absolutely nothing, will happen in education without the cooperation of classroom teachers.

    Teaching is at a crossroads now. If the present economic situation continues, teachers will lose much of what they have gained in the last 100 years (e.g. decent salaries, due process). However, if and when we regain our footing, teachers will (hopefully) find themselves in a true profession at last, complete iwith expanded rights (in the area of curriculum, instruction and school management) increased salaries and much improved working conditions. And yes, once again districts will be begging people to staff their classrooms and promising tenure and whatever else the teacher wants.

  3. I have enjoyed reading your blogs, Celine. Thank you very much. I have heard my own children say that they would never become teachers because the work is so hard and the pay low. I tell them the story of the last day of my first year of teaching, when a senior, Anissia, who had graduated a week before, came back to find me. She walked into my room and, said, “Mr. G., I just wanted to tell you I’ve decided what I want to be in my life.” I asked her what. “To be just like you, she replied. You can’t beat that. And I have never felt better in more than 22 years of work, all but 6 of which have been outside the classroom.

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