Despite long hours, difficult emotional attachments and policies many disagree with, 5 percent of 2,025 teachers say the “desire to make a worthwhile difference in the lives of children” is what keeps them going.
Andrea Rorrer is the director of the Utah Education Policy Center, associate dean of the College of Education and a professor in the Educational Leadership and Policy Department at the University of Utah. Yongmei Ni is the assistant director of the Utah Education Policy Center and a professor in Educational Leadership at the U. Rorrer and Ni teamed up together to survey teachers on why they teach and what makes them stick with it.
“There are a couple things that sparked our inquiries into our topic,” Rorrer said. “First, is we’re interested in teachers and leaders and their trajectory through college and into the field and then what they do when they’re in the field, including how long they stay or where they go, which career path they take.”
The top three reasons educators chose teaching included the desire “to make a worthwhile difference in the lives of children,” “to contribute to the greater societal good” and “to experience working with children/young adults.”
The Utah-based survey lined up with the experiences of teachers like Jacob Jobe, a U alumnus who is in his fifth year of teaching at Park City High School. Coming from a family of teachers, Jobe was able to see the impact teachers, like his parents, had on their students, leading him to know teaching was for him at a young age.
“I had a teacher in my undergrad who reminded us that you don’t teach content,” Jobe said. “You teach kids.”
Of teachers who took the survey, 19 percent said they were unsure of whether or not they would continue to teach. Jobe admits the job can be hard, and he becomes disheartened seeing the emotional toll and other effects standardized tests can have on students.
“Sometimes you’re forced to kind of be the tool of the state in terms of how you give tests and implement policy in your classroom, and that can be really, really frustrating when you know that the policies the politicians are handing down are just really bad teaching practice,” Jobe said.
Being a person students can turn to for guidance, however, is one of the greatest payoffs.
“We really need teachers in Utah,” Jobe said. “We have a teacher shortage and there are a lot of reasons for that, but it’s a super rewarding profession. … There are a lot of outside factors that make it really hard.”
The first few years of teaching are the most difficult, but keeping the big picture in mind helps. Erin Castro, an assistant professor in the educational leadership and policy department and co-founder and director of the U’s prison education project, is a first-generation college graduate. She said she went from not knowing graduate school was even an option to pursuing and finishing a doctorate degree.
“I have been fortunate enough to have experiences with really good teachers, critical teachers, teachers that have committed and they changed my life,” Castro said. “They gave me the opportunity to change my life. I knew very early on that there was something drawing me to this. I ended up going to get a Ph.D. and all six years of my Ph.D. program I taught, so I was able to get a lot of experience and I enjoyed it, so I thought let’s just continue doing this.”
In a world of cause and effect, Castro does not need to always see the end of the road to motivate her to keep going.
“Even if students maybe don’t do well in my class or don’t like the class, this is a particular snapshot in time,” Castro said. “I’m still going to do my best. I’m still going to pour my heart and soul into teaching and at one point maybe a couple years down the road, maybe they remember something, and if they don’t, that’s okay, too. But I don’t need to witness it necessarily to know that what I’m doing is making a difference.”
That desire to change the world as a motivation is what Ni found most surprising.
“We focus so much on why [teachers] leave that sometimes we forget to really look at why they become a teacher and why do they remain a teacher,” Ni said.
Rorrer and Ni are still gathering information and hope to better gauge satisfaction levels to gain an understanding of what pushes them away.
“We wanted teachers to understand that the importance of the survey was to have their voice,” Rorrer said.