How to keep our teachers teaching
By Ivy Higgins
A well-intentioned friend once asked me about teaching. “Why do you do it? You could make so much more doing something else.” She had been considering a career change for herself and I convinced her to spend a day volunteering in my classroom. I put her to work helping my students build toilet paper tsunamis to go along with our “I survived the Japanese Tsunami” book and witnessing students do an exercise in math that one student described as “The sickest day of my life!” Sara was making over $70,000 at her other job and just couldn’t take the pay cut to pursue teaching.
Indeed, I sometimes ask myself, “Why do I stay?” In a state where every year 19 percent of classroom teachers leave, what keeps me coming back? The primary reason is that I love watching children grow and develop and my biggest thrill is knowing I have helped them.
When I learned that 93 percent of my students passed the ELA (English Language Arts) exam last year, I was prouder than when I reached the summit of Kilimanjaro in 2019. But why do I stay here, in Clark County? The answer is the support I have from the staff and administration at my school, Myrtle Tate Elementary. No matter what challenges our North Las Vegas community faces, Myrtle Tate’s team always comes through with optimistic, practical solutions. Every year, as I consider more lucrative districts and positions, those possibilities always outweighed by the constant reality of the professional support and encouragement I’ve experienced here.
My school has a large population of students struggling with poverty, family incarceration and limited English proficiency, but it also has a climate of supportive, practical positivity. Every day there is a child in crisis that I must address before I can teach, but I know I’ll tackle it with the support of my school administration and colleagues. It is easier to come into work knowing that whenever I’m stymied on how to reach a student, I have a network of teachers, counselors and support staff who respond with genuine care. We’ve created a safety net of wraparound services that enables us to handle challenges and crises together.
For example, if students need glasses, we can get them from Eyecare for Kids. Dental care? We get that from Healthy Smiles. When students’ home lives are turbulent, we have support from BoysTown. If they are hungry, we have access to food bags from Communities in Schools. At Myrtle Tate Elementary School, we are a village for our children.
Having worked at several other schools, I recognize how special our administration is in trusting us and granting us autonomy in teaching decisions. There is joy in teaching a learning unit that you created with specific students in mind, and in responding to my principal’s encouragement to be creative and design units that incorporate a 3D printer, costumes, and lessons in the garden. I know from experience that when she discovers I’ve deviated from a lesson plan, she trusts that I’ve made a professional decision based on what I’ve observed in my students. That professional respect is of paramount importance.
So many teachers lament the lack of a clearly delineated teaching career path, but my administrators have always found ways to support my professional growth. They’ve recommended me for fellowships, academies, and conferences that have captured my interest. The Myrtle Tate faculty are all encouraged to teach professional development to each other.
There is magic that happens when teachers become learners again and are encouraged to pass their experiences onto their students. Imagine how the kids will benefit if all schools create a similar environment for teachers; one that respects, supports, and encourages them to keep doing their best work for our kids. Here are some of the ways they can begin (or continue) doing that:
- Administrators should prioritize a counselor in their funding formula and seek out opportunities for wraparound services. Communities in Schools is a great place to start. Teachers can teach best when they know that students are helped and ready to learn. Administrators also need to trust teachers to be professionals and allow teachers to get invested in designing instruction for their class.
- School leadership should create an environment where teachers are inspired to learn, by encouraging to become board certified, and recommending them for fellowships and conferences. By helping teachers to find new ways to spark their passion, administrators are sure to prolong their purpose and commitment in the classroom.
Ivy Higgins teaches 4th grade at Myrtle Tate Elementary School in Las Vegas. She is a 2019-2020 Teach Plus Nevada Policy Fellow.