Op-Ed: I’m a Washington teacher and I love my job.
by Keenan Grayson
It seems every day is a new storyline trumpeting a beleaguered teaching profession. The teacher shortage dominates the headlines and we’ve all seen stories about teachers leaving the profession because Walmart pays better.
There’s no doubt that teacher satisfaction is at a low. In a recent survey, a little more than half of teachers are satisfied with their jobs, and only 12% say they’re “very satisfied” with their jobs, down from 39% in 2012.
I, however, have been happily back in my Seattle high school classroom for three weeks now and 100% of my colleagues stayed with Summit Public Schools. Why is my experience so different from that of my peers around the country? Why do I feel fulfilled and passionate about my job, while others are leaving the profession in droves?
In my five years at Summit Public Schools: Atlas, I’ve gleaned a few lessons about what makes teachers happy. First, we feel like we’re having a real impact on students’ lives by teaching what matters. Second, we’re building meaningful and lasting relationships with our students and with each other as colleagues. Last, we feel supported by the leadership team every step of the way.
I believe burnout occurs when teachers are spinning their wheels on things they don’t believe help students. For me, I feel like I’m teaching things that matter. I can’t explain to a student why the state test matters. I can’t connect their hopes, dreams and aspirations to it. I can make a connection between the cognitive skills we teach, like synthesizing multiple sources or making argumentative claims, with skills they’ll need later in life. And we have fun with it because I’m provided with the flexibility to teach to meet my students’ needs. We have heated exchanges about the best rap album of all time during which they’re learning the critical skill of providing strong opinions for their claims, backed by reason and evidence.
Mentoring is a critical element of our model. I meet with the same group of students every week for four years. I know these students’ fears and hopes. These relationships are fulfilling for me as a teacher. I am able to reach them on a deeper level and impact their lives. We’ve been goal-setting, making plans outlining the steps they need to take to achieve those goals and checking progress toward the goals. Through these strong relationships, I’m able to leverage really high expectations of my students because I know them, they know me and trust me.
The gel that binds all our school’s programs together is the leadership’s support. Honestly, my first year I felt the amount of professional development was overbearing. Now, I appreciate it for the lifeline it is. We have three weeks of professional development during the summer before school starts and throughout the year we have eight additional weeks of professional development aside from our weekly meetings. That consistency has helped me develop as a teacher in my practice, allowing me to continue to grow.
This intentional support of great teachers is producing strong outcomes for students too. A recent report showed graduates from Summit enroll in college at a rate up to 30 percentage points higher than students from seven other Seattle school districts. Those gaps are even greater, up to 40 percentage points, when we compare outcomes for Black graduates, 82% of whom graduate from Summit and enroll in college. These are results that matter.
The current public education system in this country is stuck in the industrial era in which it was conceived. But the changes it requires to meet the needs of today are not so radical. Simple cultural and programmatic shifts on campuses that empower teachers and support them will directly impact students. Let’s study and model what many schools across the nation are doing. Let’s share best practices. We can move mountains together.
Keenan Grayson is a 9th grade history teacher at Summit Atlas in West Seattle.