Teaching for the “Right” Reasons, Leaving for the “Wrong” Ones

A colleague of mine recently asked an Arizona state legislator, “How do you feel about the fact that teachers in Arizona are paid less than most other places in the nation?” The legislator’s response was: “I’m proud of it…because that means they are entering the profession for the right reasons.” Although I have heard similar sentiments expressed before in my home state, I was still disappointed by this. After Red for Ed, and amidst our current teacher shortage in Arizona, I hoped we had learned more about what it takes to teach.

This legislator perpetuates an idea that relates to the precarious status of teachers in this country, which I have written about in more depth elsewhere. It harkens back to the commonly held notion that teachers – who are mostly women – should be self-sacrificing, should operate completely without concern for themselves, without thought for their own well-being. For those who serve our children must give without taking and learn to subsist off of the nobility of the act. Our society has established expectations for teachers that are not unlike those we have of mothers; we are supposed to be martyrs. But this notion is damaging to our teachers, our students, and our society.

Let’s just get one thing straight first, though. No teacher sets out to enter teaching for the “wrong” reasons. Not even if the pay and status were higher. Because the reality is that there will always be far easier ways to make money than teaching. Across the country, teachers complete onerous teacher certification programs and must pass standardized exams and fulfil security clearance procedures just to enter the classroom. Once there, they need to draw upon a number of complex skills and competencies to teach, connect with, and manage 30+ children or adolescents at the same time. And despite common perceptions to the contrary, teachers often work well over 8 hours a day, especially early in their careers, for there is grading, planning, and correspondence with parents and students that must be done after hours. Many also spend their summers teaching summer school, planning new courses, or writing grants. Teaching will never be easy money.

Instead, the vast majority of teachers enter the profession for the “intrinsic rewards,” those experiences that nurture teachers’ hearts, minds, and souls. For truly, there is a great deal of meaning and fulfillment to be experienced in the service of others. But sometimes – and perhaps this is often the case in the state of Arizona – those intrinsic rewards are not enough to sustain oneself.

Imagine that you love teaching and that your favorite part is connecting with the incredible human beings you have the opportunity to serve every day. When one of your students has an “aha!” moment that facilitates their understanding of complex material, makes a fascinating point in class discussion that had not even occurred to you (even though you have been studying this stuff for years), or writes you a heartfelt thank you note for caring about their academic and personal growth in a way few others have – it sends you to cloud nine, all your hard work has been worth it. For a while, this keeps you going, for this is why you went into teaching in the first place: meaningful service to students and to the future of this nation. But at the same time, you need to survive.

You have student loans that keep piling up, because getting your teaching degree was not cheap. You have to pay rent, which in the state of Arizona is increasing at epic proportions. You have to feed yourself and care for your physical and mental health (which teaching can often take a toll on). And perhaps you need to provide for a family as well, with children who need to be in daycare or after-school care so you can do your job. Your salary is less than $50,000 a year and you are struggling to pay for all these expenses, even with your Uber/Lyft side-hustle. And then you begin to think, is it worth it? The building in which you work is literally falling apart. The ceiling leaks when it rains. The A/C only cools the classroom down into the 90s when desert temperatures are soaring outside (and the HVAC system emits that musty smell characteristic of mold growth). The carpeting is ripped and stained and too unsanitary for students to sit on during morning circle. Your 1990s textbooks are in a similar state. And now your average class has 40 students in it (the ideal number is closer to half that). Despite how much you love teaching, how much it feeds your very soul, you begin to think that maybe this is not in fact sustainable. You have to think about your family.

This is why research shows that while intrinsic rewards – the “right” reasons – generally draw teachers into the profession, extrinsic forces like salary, benefits, workload and working conditions are driving them out. And it has caused a teacher shortage so severe that 1 in 5 Arizona classrooms does not have a permanent teacher. Teachers are not entering for wrong reasons, but they are leaving for them, because when they weigh the balance and do the math, the negatives have begun to outweigh the positives. And I do not blame them.  The teachers are not in the wrong here. The system is.

We cannot expect teachers to be martyrs. Martyrs die; but we need teachers to live and thrive so they can teach our children to thrive, too. We need to pay them well and respect them immensely for their incredibly important work. The future of our state depends on it.