Haberman’s Star Teachers: Post #1a

Why wait? I’ll pull the trickest card from our deck of fifteen and throw it down: The Care and Feeding of the Bureaucracy. But first, a story.

Many of you will have read Sarah Fine’s heart-aching editorial in yesterday’s  Washington Post (see above), describing why she chose to leave teaching after her first four years.  (I chased back her “50% turnover within five years” sound byte to here, by the way, where it is actually only a small part of a much more nuanced statistical analysis. Read it. Question authority. That being said, the epic turnover rate in high poverty urban schools like Fine’s is undeniable.)

My heart further aches for her because she is now going to catch a certain kind of very painful criticism from some educators, including myself initially. Consider this answering post from the equally talented science teacher Michael Doyle (no facetiousness intended whatsoever):

So why does anyone teach here in the States? You’ll get a lot of answers–love of students, time off, good benefits–but for those of us who happily stay, it’s because we believe teaching matters. The financial compensation is reasonable if not spectacular, but that’s not why we teach.

I quote the post because it so concisely advances a typical argument of passionate educators currently in the field: what I’ve started to think of  “the care quota.” That is, if you have enough caring in your heart– for the kids, for the ethical choice to teach, for the global goodness to which we contribute as educators– then nothing as petty or superficial as a lack of payment, a sense of control, or career advancement should deter you.

It’s beautiful, isn’t it? It’s the intuitive extrinsic/intrinsic values split. If only it were true.

As it turns out, the reasons Sarah Fine cites  for her leaving are not necessarily extrinsically motivated at all. According to the research of Ed Deci and Rich Ryan, perhaps the two foremost experts on intrinsic motivation in the world, human beings have three deep psychological needs that need to be satisfied in order to feel intrinsically fulfilled: Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness. Let’s look at a couple of quotes from Sarah through this lens.

Autonomy: “I describe spending weeks revising a curriculum proposal with my fellow teachers, only to find out that the administration had made a unilateral decision without looking at it.”

Competence: “Even so, I felt like a failure. Too many of my students showed only occasional signs of intellectual curiosity, despite my best efforts to engage them. “

Relatedness: When people ask me about teaching, however, what they really seem to mean is that it’s unfathomable that anyone with real talent would want to stay in the classroom for long…a portion of the American public sees teaching as a second-rate profession.”

These are not the words of a corporate executive in sheep’s clothing. They are the words of a caring person who is, legitimately, not being intrinsically supported. In this light, it seems clear that interpreting Sarah’s reasons for leaving teaching as merely extrinsically motivated– that is, not sufficiently caring– would be incorrect.  From there, it is logical to reason that one’s capacity to care as a teacher is not, in fact, proportionally related to how long one remains a teacher.

So what is? What determines who stays, and who leaves? For me, this is where Haberman’s research comes in: nailing down exactly what teachers do to make a systemically, intrinsically intolerable situation something they can live with. Indeed, this very research serves as an additional stark reminder that “caring” is not enough. The sustenance we draw from our relationships with kids, the joy we take in those magic moments of comprehension, or the hope we place in their futures which we affect, but may not see– these things may very well act as one kind of chemical inhibitor to our leaving the profession. But we all do many more things in our classrooms than think these happy thoughts– at least fifteen things, by Haberman’s count.

And the one that most directly pertains to Sarah, I feel, is the one I’ll be talking about next: the care and feeding of the bureaucracy of education.  It’s my contention that this factor, and this alone, is sufficient to drive out not only caring teachers, but the most caring teachers. Ironic, isn’t it?

Stay tuned.

11 thoughts on “Haberman’s Star Teachers: Post #1a

  1. Dear Dina,

    Ah, yes, I feared getting lumped into the Strawberry Shortcake Care Bear crowd, a sad fall from my stevedoring days. I’m not the cuddly type.

    The pay is decent. I am truly spoiled by a wonderful supervisor and a supportive administration. I may not be the best judge. Still, I’ll take your points in turn:


    If Sarah Fine has issues with her administration, and many teachers do, she might consider finding another district before abandoning the field. True autonomy rarely exists in any field–it certainly no longer exists in medicine–but the freedom I have to present lessons (within the guidelines of the curriculum, of course) in the classroom is a big part of the reason I love teaching.

    Though Ms. Fine may see herself as less than successful, I cannot judge he competence, though she seems to be a bit hard on herself.

    Most of us see success in small steps, with occasionally spectacular breakthroughs. In medicine, I did not always measure my competence by how the patient ultimately fared, though outside agencies did. At least one of my biggest “successes” succumbed, and my team was awarded a citation for the survival of a child that had nothing to do with our actions.

    I think a lot of us in the field find measures of competence beyond test scores. (To be fair, I believe Ms. Fine did as well–she may have had unrealistic expectations or little support or one of many, many factors that weighed against her opinion of herself.)


    I think the article speaks for itself. It may well be that she felt that others questioned the value of teaching by their questions; it may also reflect how she herself sees it.

    I think my post may have been a bit too abbreviated–it was initially a response to someone else, and I could have fleshed it out a bit.

    Part of me thinks that Ms. Fine may return to teaching in a few years with a different mindset, and be spectacular. One of my mentors did just that.

    Anyway, thanks for the mention–I just don’t want folks to think I’m some kind of mushy-headed softie.

  2. It’s amazing how much attention Sarah’s article is getting. That in itself is data that the nature of teaching is, though somewhat elusive, very relevant.

    I disagree with your analysis of her motivators, however.

    “I describe spending weeks revising a curriculum proposal with my fellow teachers, only to find out that the administration had made a unilateral decision without looking at it.”

    It sounds to me like either she worked in a school with crappy administration or didn’t let them know they were preparing such a proposal beforehand.

    In either case, you learn from the mistake and move on. Like in any profession, it can take a while before you find the perfect working environment for you. You can either act the victim – woe is me, look what they did! or be moved to take care of one’s self and seek the environment that satisfies our needs for feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, or sense of belonging.

    Basically, we can analyze Sarah’s motivations from a million different perspectives. When it comes down to it, there are also many more teachers who stay in the profession. And no, we don’t stay in it because we are martyrs. We actively seek environments that work for us – either by looking for ones that already exist or by being involved in their creation.

    I’ve written about this, both on my own blog and as a comment to Michael’s. Teaching requires passion. One may have the desire to teach, as Sarah did, but desire runs out if passion is not there. Whatever Sarah is looking for on a deep, personal level, is not there for her in teaching.

    I had the desire to consult a few years ago. I got myself a position as an education consultant and was working with passionate, dedicated teachers who were trying to make a difference. I was paid well – better than I am now 3 years later teaching, had good benefits, was respected by my colleagues, and recognized for the good work I was doing. I left after a successful year because my heart was pulled to the classroom. I missed being surrounded by students – my passion was not being fed, regardless of my desire to be a consultant.

    Here is my blog post on the subject:
    Attitudes Toward Teaching

    Here is another great conversation, at Angela Maier’s blog:
    Why Teach? (They Ask)

  3. I’ve sometimes mused that competence, like moral goodness, seems to have a lot to do with luck, and that it’s definitely a relational quantity, depending on the situation at least as much as on any intrinsic qualities we might have. What connection is there between one’s sense of efficacy and the work that one has done? If we feel accomplished at our teaching tasks, what omissions and inadequacies must we necessarily overlook in order to feel that way? Maybe feeling competent is a sort of privilege, analogous to self-righteousness in some vague sense, one that a person can opt for simply by choosing easier work? Not sure I’m making any sense now, but – anyway 🙂

  4. Hi,

    Relatedness would refer also to her relationship with fellow teachers and pupils besides the principal and the administration.

    It is tough to start educating kids from 10th grade. Maybe should she try younger kids and look to teach at a a more progressive school.

    One day she will be sending her kids to school , so as a parent education and schools will still be very important , maybe she wil no longer teach but she can still advocate a more constructivist approach to learning.


  5. I totally agree that “caring” is not enough. I teach “because I care” or “because I love” is a line that we give for principals who don’t know how to ask good interview questions. “Loving” kids makes goods social workers and barely adequate teachers. We all know that teacher who can relate to kids but is low on content. The teachers get love back, but less academic respect and weak learning.

    It is also too easy to put the “bureaucracy” weight on the immediate administrators. Haberman would likely note that they are just another part of it, not its originators. They are at least on the school level; they serve other hubs of the school engine, which serves other hubs, which serves the public and a mass of lawyers which give us undernourished and under supported students in the first place.

    One thing I loved about my last principal is that I had some freedom to experiment. Great teachers need room to breathe. When was the last time a principal or a district allowed freedom like that as a system? It is anti-bureaucratic. Some school systems have “site-based” management, but isn’t it time for a system that gets the management out of proven teachers’ classrooms so much? Such a wish is likely pie-in-the-sky, but Haberman notes that star teachers thrive on the exciting.

    So a few ideas:
    1. This is very true in English: require less breadth in each grade to allow teachers to teach some topics more deeply. My standards just seem to grow and often duplicate another grades. Have fewer “must teach” books and eliminate practices that are just around “because we’ve always done it that way.”

    2. Districts should do more to highlight creative teaching. Professional development departments should seek out teachers beyond their usual “favorite few” to give workshops.

    3. Refine evaluation procedures to not be a checklist or generic descriptions but to look for evidence of student engagement, student retention, and varying assessments.

    4. Principals should encourage an assessment culture where multiple choice tests are only occasionally used.

    All of these may be “when pigs fly” but it would be a good start.

  6. I added a longer comment to this on my blog:


    Fine’s problem underscores a larger issue. Many of our administrators aren’t recognizing good teaching. I’m sure we’ve all had evaluations that just followed a rote checklist, gave less than helpful feedback, or missed the point entirely.

    What a daring in-school teacher group should do is create an evaluation framework for a principal that stresses certain factors such as student engagement, lesson rigor, and quality assessment, even if a framework is already mandated. Create a knowledge that current evaluations methods are ignoring good teachers.

  7. I couldn’t agree more. In my experience as an educator (who has stayed in the profession and has stayed passionate and who can empathize with Sarah Fine and confirm the costs to her personal life that she predicted if she had stayed), the consistent advice from older teachers who do not struggle with the demons that haunt me daily, is to “pick your battles”, “take the long view”, “you can’t save them all” or “you will burn out.” I’ve always referred to these persons as vampires. They want to convert you so you will join the tribe of the living lifeless. I also envy them because they do gain eternal life. They go out for drinks with colleagues on Friday afternoon at 4:00 as soon as the bell rings, they take long lunches during teacher workdays and always have hot coffee in hand when the walk into the building at the bell. They have careers long enough for them to retire from the profession, as soon as they are eligible and often as administrators or downtown coordinators, padding their pensions so they can finally work on that boat or hang out with their grandkids within the security of a state retirement plan. But look around your building after four years at your first high school, reflect on the people on staff you know because they have been there as long as you and who has moved on, you begin to understand it’s only the vampires who last. You are faced then with a decision: do I get out now before I become one or am I strong and wise enough to stay and even know when it’s happened to me? By then, will I be so close to that fat pension that I’ll count the years and ride it out.? And that thought alone is horrifying enough to make you leave while you can still feel your own pulse.

  8. Hope Hynes Love: Haberman writes a lot about “strong insensitives”, teachers who “can resist the debilitating conditions of work because they don’t care”. He suggests that they do worse damage than the “failures and quitters.”

  9. @H – your first comment rings true. Last year I think I did a cracking good job as a Subject Head, Board Representative, and Curriculum Team Member. But I counted most weeks as “failures” because I rarely felt that I spent enough time preparing my lessons or marking papers.

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