Visiting the principal’s office never gets less scary, even when you’re a teacher and the principal is your boss. This time, though, my nerves were rattled in a new way. I was about to tell him I was leaving.
My anxiety, however, quickly gave way to disbelief.
When I told the principal I decided to take a new job elsewhere, his face slipped a little too easily into resignation.
“I thought that was going to happen,” he said.
My mind went blank for a handful of uncomfortable moments. All I could think was, “Then why didn’t you say something? Why not do something about it?”
This was not the response I expected; he and I had a good relationship. I expected concern, a desire to know why I was departing.
Instead of expressing my confusion, I answered his casual questions about the new position and accepted his well wishes. We went about the rest of our day.
So Much More to Learn
I did not plan to leave my school; I loved my kids. I loved teaching chemistry. I loved being a part of building our school, a new charter in the South Side of Chicago, working to surmount its early hurdles.
When a recruiter from Teach For America reached out to me for a job outside of the classroom, I said I wasn’t ready to leave. I felt that I needed to learn much more.
So why did I have a change of heart?
It wasn’t the workload. It wasn’t the kids. My kids were what caused any and all doubt about my decision—and still do, each time I see them.
“Ms. Abraham, I’m mad at you. My little sister won’t have you for chemistry.”
I know the damage caused and the message sent when teachers leave.
I can articulate the reason for my departure more clearly years later. I left because of a misunderstanding of what respect is for our profession.
I remember the day I was told, “You’re the highest-rated teacher in our school.” Although this was meant as a compliment, I knew it couldn’t have been accurate. Still, I took that as a clear message that I wasn’t going to grow much further. Who was going to show me how to be a stronger teacher?
Good-Enough Teaching Not Good Enough for Students
If anyone had extra time or energy—unlikely at a new school—it wasn’t going to be devoted to pushing me to get beyond “good-enough” teaching. “Good-enough” teaching wasn’t going to raise the bar for our best students, who could skate by in a place with a graduation rate that once was in the thirties. If I stayed, I would have plateaued in a short time.
Praise is not necessarily respect.
Respecting a teacher means empowering them to push to the next level. It means telling them that you need them and investing in their development. This is about setting a high bar and expecting teachers—with some warmth, support and encouragement—to reach for that bar.
Yes, appreciation and applause for educators are necessary, yet these things alone will not cause teachers to stick around. They are not substitutes for authentic support and investment. Even the most promising novice teachers, who start strong and show results right out of the gate, shouldn’t confuse competence with excellence; they must hone their talents if they want students who have attended failing schools to thrive in the same way as students in our more successful schools. Excellence is what will create equity for our children.
Teachers who are valuable to our children should never feel they need to leave because they’ve plateaued. It is our responsibility to see this does not happen.
We respect ourselves and our students too much to lower that bar.