I spent two years teaching in a diverse, high-poverty school on the northwest side of Chicago. And I was fortunate enough to say that even with the incredible growth my students showed in my classroom—in my second year, students averaged more than four years of growth—I was not the best teacher in the building.
On the contrary, I worked with teachers who were simply amazing—who had dedicated five to 10 years to this profession, who made strong gains with their students every year, and who served as models for me. They knew how to develop supportive relationships with parents and work with peers collaboratively in ways I was just beginning to understand.
Most of the excellent teachers were founding members of the school, and were extremely invested in it and the students whom they watched grow from kindergarteners to middle-schoolers.
But after giving five years of 14-hour workdays in a high-stakes environment with high expectations and little reward, all of the best teachers, one by one, left during my two-year tenure there.
I was shocked.
My school was high-performing, had fearless leadership, great parents, and terrific support.
And still, I witnessed a mass exodus of the highest-performing teachers I’d ever met, from a strong community of teachers and students.
They felt completely burned out and undervalued. They saw a stark choice between doing what they love and pursuing a sustainable future—starting families, buying homes, and moving up in their careers.
Through my job now at Public Impact, I’ve been working for the past year with school design teams of teachers in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system. When we first started working with these teachers, they were not thinking about career advancement within the classroom or being paid more in a financially sustainable way over a whole career.
When we asked them to think about new school models, many of them were immediately wary, uneasy about accepting the task of thinking outside the box to redesign their school and trusting that their ideas could influence the decision-makers to make positive change.
All of this made me wonder—how do we ask that of teachers who have spent their careers trying to find ways to reach students within the confines of a system beyond their control?
That’s when we realized that as much as we must communicate the students’ urgent need for more excellent teachers, we must also communicate the huge sense of urgency we feel to change the teachers’ profession—because opportunities for teachers mean opportunities for students.
Through that lens, the co-directors of Public Impact asked what resonated most for me about our Opportunity Culture initiative and what I thought would make other teachers who were excellent or striving for excellence receptive.
Here’s what I told them: As a teacher, I would love for someone to ask me to imagine what it would be like to work in a place that ensures that all teachers have the chance to improve their craft, and be rewarded for getting better; a place that lets all teachers make the best use of their talents by focusing their time and energy on parts of their job that they do best; a place that lets great teachers multiply their impact by giving more students access to their teaching for more pay; and a place that offers excellent teachers leadership roles that are not far removed from students.
I would love for someone to ask me to imagine being part of a profession that recruits the best and the brightest, and has a reputation for developing and retaining top talent through all of these opportunities, plus salaries that can compete against those of doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Essentially, this means asking teachers to imagine a profession that, rather than being laden with things that keep people from becoming a teacher, is full of hard-to-refuse opportunities. That would make me want to say, “Yes. How?!” and set me up to be more receptive to the models we propose.
I truly believe that this kind of job, with this kind of potential for career advancement and higher pay, is the only thing that would have kept all of those great teachers in my school.
And this is the kind of profession I want to look forward to when I go back into the classroom.
Great teachers deserve this profession, and they have every right to imagine it, want it, and watch it become reality.
And so—what if we invested in the ingredient that has always made the difference, through endless reforms that focused on everything else: excellent teachers?
Jiye Grace Han was a 2011 national finalist for the Sue Lehmann Award for Excellence in Teaching, Teach For America’s highest honor.
This post first appeared at Impatient Optimists.