December 7th 2018—For many years I have experienced what I increasingly see as a moral dilemma. It leads me to ask the question should I keep teaching and preparing new teachers or should I leave the profession. This question has recently engaged my heart with increased vigor. Perhaps I’m on the edge of “moral-injury” as I’ve defined in previous posts. I wonder if the tension between my ideal notions of preparing teachers and what I experience during the actual practice of teaching new teachers is leading me to make decisions that bend and distort my moral compass. This may be the case, but as I reflect on my situation I don’t think my dilemma rises to that level of concern. I continue to find ways to act with integrity and fidelity to my call to teach. It doesn’t feel like my moral compass is non-functional and unreliable. I still have a strong sense of my personal and pedagogical True North. This assertion and confidence in my inner-teacher may perhaps seem odd given that I started this essay with the statement that I wonder if I should continue to teach or not.
I believe that what has been and is currently going on in my heart is a conflict between my love of teaching and the reality of what new teachers face as they enter the profession. In particular I wonder if it is morally justifiable to feed my passion to teach—my inner calling—while at the same time knowing the high rate of early career burnout. I know all too well the harsh meaning behind the statistic that 50% of new teachers leave in 5 years. In under-resourced and underserved schools the attrition rate rises to 50% in 3 years. In real terms this means that half of my students will leave the profession and their calling to influence the life trajectory of their students. Hovering above this shocking statistic are the real faces and caring hearts that I know all too well; the students in my classes.
It is equally clear to me that not all preservice teachers should become teachers. I consider it a good and virtuous responsibility to determine if the profession of teaching is a good fit for every student I teach. Low ratings on observations and poor academic performance suggest a lack of fit. It is good for the profession and good for the K-12 students experiencing a lack of teaching passion or ineffective pedagogy when I encourage my low performing students to seek other professions more consistent with their gifts. Yet the lack of fit as a rational for leaving the profession is not the reason for the early departure of many of my students. They leave the profession for other reasons which are often more traumatic. The origin of their challenge is remaining true to their calling within a system and social context that is more concerned with performance indicators than the love of teaching. The social-emotional stress associated with testing, accountability, teacher-proof curriculum, and standards-based assessment can sometimes reach such an extreme that the only reasonable choice is to leave. Teachers in this circumstance are broken-hearted and disillusioned. How can a profession they love and care for treat them so poorly?
At the core of my moral dilemma is the question should I really continue to prepare young teachers for a profession that I know is often antithetical to all they hold dear? Should I continue to encourage teachers to enter the profession when I know that for many of them they will experience an instructional and relational environment that crushes their spirit and leaves them broken hearted? How long can I remain complicit with a system that tends to chew up new educators, even ones that show promise and are effective at igniting young minds? As I’ve leaned into these questions I find myself encountering a number of sticking points. The first is rather practical and straightforward; how will I earn a living and pay my bills? Although an important consideration, the transactional factors of my work are not compelling reasons to remain in the profession. There are many other ways to earn a living. A more deeply rooted reason for remaining in the role of teacher is that education is my professional calling. It is the best way to interact with my gifts with integrity and fidelity. Edna St. Vincent Millay captures the deeply spiritual feeling I encounter while teaching when she writes: “World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!” When I’m at my best as a teacher I get close enough to the richness of the learning moment and the sweet enticing engagement of my students, a moment of instructional bliss. If I quit as a way to resolve the dilemma, I risk dishonoring my calling and cutting myself off from opportunities to become enlivened by the great mystery of education. To be placed in relationship to something greater than self, as a fulcrum for personal and professional growth, is a gift of great value.
Perhaps my next observation is informed too much by ego and an inflated sense of my self-worth as a teacher. If I quit who will teach my students the lessons and learnings they need to know about and experience while on the path toward effective instruction and professional self-worth? My argument is that my ability to wrestle with moral questions and to express an openness to the broken-hearted world of what is compared to what should be provides me with unique insights. It is within the wisdom of how to navigate the in-between spaces, what Parker Palmer calls the “tragic gap”, that students can find ways to thrive in their early years of teaching. Instead of trying to collapse the poles of what is and what should be, Palmer argues for finding a place of productive tension between the two elements in a way that honors both perspectives. By its definition good teaching exists at the dynamic interface between what is and what ought to be. Who is better placed to teach about ways to respond to broken-heartedness and disillusionment in life-giving ways than someone who regularly experiences these emotions, integrates the two poles, and continues to love teaching?
There are two things I know, (1) I’m far from resolving my dilemma and (2) the tension around quitting or continuing to teach is increasing with intensity in apparent correlation with the lack of professional respect my students face as they enter the field of teaching. So far I continue to see personal value and receive affirmation from my students in my role as coach and mentor to a greater extent than the less positive view I hold of myself as someone unconcerned about the fate of my students and who is willing to continue receiving a paycheck instead of resigning in protest. In some sense I’m glad this moral dilemma is a regular meditation for me. It helps, I believe, to keep me fairly honest about my motivations and intentions as an educator. My True North actually becomes stronger and more trustworthy the more I question its calibration. It is this sense of personal honesty that contributes to my authenticity as an educator, a sense of inner trustworthiness that manifests itself in my outer forms of teaching.