Why I decided to teach and why I decided to stay in education

Why I decided to teach and why I decided to stay in education

This is part one in a series on “Why Teach? Why Stay?” by Dr. Donald James

For months I’ve been writing, and seeing posts, about the teacher and education leadership shortages. Much of what is written about is “why” there is a shortage.  The constructs presented are all in the deficit, low salary, emotional fatigue, the politicization of the field and more – all true.  

However, there are lots of very good reasons to become an educator and stay in education. With that in mind, I thought I’d start writing about “why” I became an educator and why I have stayed in education, in some form or another, for the majority of my adult life. It started as early as high school, knowing I wanted to be a teacher, and after more than 30 years in public education, I moved to a company whose sole mission is to provide certification opportunities, professional learning experiences, and higher education programs for students who cannot access the traditional higher-ed model; students who want to and will “do good” in our schools.

Some of the story I will share will be “why” I became a teacher and at other times I will share why I stayed in education. The idea is to stay in the positive!

Revel in Watching Children Learn and Grow – There is Nothing Like it!

I first thought I wanted to teach in high school when I volunteered to help in the nursery-school housed in my school.  At that time, people thought it was a bit strange that a “guy” wanted to work with children. But for me, I grew up in such a way that I was constantly being judged; judged for my family situation; judged for my mother’s lifestyle; and judged because we were a poor family who moved a lot; were homeless at times and changed schools often.  So, when I entered the nursery school, one of the first things that struck me was that the kids didn’t judge me, or my family situation; in fact, they were just happy I was there, willing to read with them, play with blocks and “Lincoln Logs,” and anything else they wanted to do.  Beyond the escape from my everyday situation, and the non-judgmental nature of children, I reveled in watching them grow; learn how to identify letters, make new sounds, build a Lincoln Log home and more.  From those early days, I knew I wanted to teach.  I’m not saying this happens for everyone, or that it needs to.  My point in sharing this is the positive aspects of that experience, which could happen at any time someone has that first encounter.  

Undergraduate School and Student Teaching; Learning What I Didn’t Know, I Didn’t Know

Once I knew what I wanted, I moved from there, despite the “noise” around my personal situation or my choice, I applied to and was accepted to a well-regarded State college that specialized in developing “good” teachers.  

My undergrad experience was “interesting.”  I was emancipated, worked full time in the restaurant industry, and emersed myself in my ed classes.  There were challenges and doubts; could I do this in 4 years? Would I find a job when I was finished? Would I make enough to live on my own?  These doubts and challenges notwithstanding, I was beyond happy when in my teacher ed classes student child development, theories of learning, student engagement and more.  However, it really hit home when I student taught.  My first placement, grade 2, was extremely challenging; I was exhausted all the time – in essence working two full time jobs, writing out full lesson plans for every class and grading student work; I never missed a day.  The experience and the students taught me more than I could have ever learned in a college classroom; I learned how NOT to do so many things.  With first experience under my belt, I undertook my second placement with even more vigor.  I was fortunate enough to be placed in an “open” concept, middle school, grade 6 classroom and everything started coming together.  I worked with an amazing “team” of teachers, with multiple classes, teaching multiple subjects.  In this placement the school was set up in “pods” – large open areas where the entire grade taught simultaneously separated only by bookshelves and portable closets.  You might think this would be disruptive, but it was not at all.  In fact, it offered perhaps the best possible situation for teacher engagement and learning opportunities as each could see and hear what the other was doing; each could support the other when needed for large group lessons; interdisciplinary lessons were easily accomplished and as for the student teacher, the opportunity to observe and be observed in action multiple times a day by master teachers was nothing short of amazing.  To make it even better, the teachers approached conversations with each other and me, with a true sense of learning giving truly non-judgmental feedback to each other and myself.  

Subbing: What an Amazing Learning Experience

Because I was student teaching, I had to give up my restaurant job and I was broke and had no place to stay when school was closed.   Given my home situation, or lack thereof, my roommate, also an ed major, invited me to come home with him for the month-long winter recess (he was an ed major and is one of my best friends to this day).  As luck would have it, his parents were both educators and one of their close family friends was the principal of a local high school.  Believe it or not, there was a teacher shortage at that time and we were enlisted to be substitute teachers.  We spent the entire winter recess, 5 weeks, subbing – what an amazing experience.  I subbed in almost every setting, elementary, middle school, and high school.  I was challenged in every aspect, classroom management perhaps at the forefront, I think we all know how some students can react when they have a sub.  I came out of this experience even more convinced I wanted to teach!

First Teaching Job: Bringing it All to Bear!

 When I first finished earned my teaching certification in Pennsylvania, teaching salaries in Philadelphia were really low, adjusted for inflation, the salary in Philadelphia at the time was about $40,000 annually.  On my own, I simply could not afford to teach so I stayed in the restaurant industry (I learned a lot that would support my efforts as a teacher and administrator in the future).  

However, a few years later I was married to a tremendously supportive woman and with two incomes, I applied for and landed my first teaching job in a middle school in North Philly, an area decimated by the crack epidemic.  I had 40 students on my roster, no books at all and my students, about half showed up each day, and had no means to purchase any supplies at all. But I was loved it, I had my own classroom.  I managed to find one copy of each book I would use in class and each night would copy the readings by hand on mimeo graph paper for my students (I hope the copyright statute has expired); and I wrote units of study designed to share some level of “real-life skills” – what we now call project-based lessons.  My kids were amazing, many without electricity or food, except what the school gave them, but they were thirsty to learn, no matter the violence in the neighborhood and school.  I’ll never forget the principal, a large, gregarious, African American man who loved that I wanted to be there, who did what he could to support all teachers and had a way with some of the students that, in my humble opinion, perhaps saved some lives – that’s when I first saw how a strong leader can have a positive effect on student outcomes.

I learned more about teaching and working with students during my first year than I could have imagined.  

To make things even better, the school needed someone to coach the girls’ basketball team and I was it!  I didn’t know anything about basketball, but I was willing to learn. Initially, very few girls came out for the team.  I asked around and found out many of them either had to go home to take care of a younger sibling, or in some cases, their own child (this was middle school in Philly at a time when huge numbers of students were being retained, sometimes multiple years.)  So… with the help of the aunt of one of the girls, we set up a site in my coach’s office where she could watch the children while we practiced.  The lights were on!  The girls loved the game, they were quite good at it (thankfully as I knew nothing about basketball) and we won all of our games.  The school pride that resulted was amazing.  That year was one I will never forget, and I clearly continue to talk about.

In my next issue, Year 2; the Move to New York City; I will share my move to NYC’s District 2 where I was blessed to work with some of the most talented teachers, staff developers and the most gifted principal I ever worked with, that led me to want to be a school leader!

I will also address some of the major things we can do in our schools that may draw new talent to the profession and perhaps stop some from leaving such as more:

  • Time for teachers to collaborate.
  • High quality in-service training.
  • More mentoring models; and
  • Less management and more leadership.
  • Better pay and benefits.
  • Peace in the classroom.
  • And More


 OLAS:  https://www.olasjobs.org/jobs?keyword=principal&region=60

National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP):  https://www.nassp.org/ 

New York State United Teachers (NYSUT):  https://www.nysut.org/resources/special-resources-sites/look-at-teaching/why-teach/teacher-shortage 

National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP):  https://www.nysut.org/resources/special-resources-sites/look-at-teaching/why-teach/teacher-shortage 

It’s Back to School for the “Principal” of Supply and Demand (Kelly Staffing): https://www.kellyeducationalstaffing.us/kes/siteassets/united-states—kes/files/17-0662_back-to-school-for-the-principal-supply-and-demand.pdf 


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