An interesting conversation about teacher retention emerged recently, beginning with Shawn Cornally thinking outloud about how to keep good teachers in the system, and later moving over to Dan Meyer’s blog where he discussed the twin pressures on novice teachers.
In describing how good teachers often ultimately feel a pull out of the classroom, Dan Meyer says
The job becomes untenable at about the same time that it becomes unchallenging.
The point he’s making is that teaching becomes easier, and as it does, it ceases to be a challenge for good teachers, who are then more likely to leave the classroom in search of other challenges.
There are valid, relevant issues raised here, but the suggestion that teaching ceases to be a challenge at some point sounds crazy to me.
Teaching is always a challenge. Experience may make certain practices more efficient, but in some ways, that efficiency only makes the deeper challenges easier to see.
Consider the endless challenges offered by the three major components of teaching: knowledge of students, knowledge of pedagogy, and knowledge of content.
A good teacher must know their students. Every new student, and new class, presents unique challenges to a teacher, who has to forge positive relationships and create productive environments. This may get easier with experience, but it’s always a challenge, and can always be improved upon.
Since teaching is about understanding how learning happens, the fact that we don’t fully understand how learning happens creates another set of evolving challenges. There are always new ideas to consider, new practices to try, new approaches to instructional design, and of course, new technologies to integrate. Trying to figure out how learning happens is a daily challenge for a teacher, and it may never fully be understood.
And when it comes to content knowledge, no teacher could feel more challenged than a math teacher. Some of the smartest people in the world spend their lives in a perpetual state of learning mathematics. There is always more mathematics to study, new connections to find, new perspectives on old problems, and old problems to make new again. Understanding mathematics is a never-ending challenge.
At some point, a good teacher may decide that these challenges are no longer meaningful enough to justify the great effort and investment that teaching requires. It’s understandable, and in that case, leaving the classroom may be a courageous and noble decision: walking away from something you do well in order to follow a deeper passion is admirable, and it also sets a good example for students. But this isn’t because teaching ceases to be challenging; it’s because the individual no longer feels motivated by those challenges.
The task of teaching is infinitely deep and infinitely varied. I often feel that, in becoming a better teacher, I simply become more aware of what I need to do differently. Like mathematics itself, teaching becomes more complex the more you know about it. What could be more challenging than that?