Teacher Perspective: Recognizing the Value of Staying at Your School

A couple of years into my tenure as a performing arts teacher at The Hewitt School (NY), an administrator who I respected told me that she never stays more than five years at any institution. She accepted a similar position somewhere else shortly after we had that conversation. At the time, I figured that must be the norm for independent school employees and that I’d likely fall into the same pattern. Five years came and went. Eighteen years later, I’m still here. 

Sure, I’ve interviewed at other schools a few times. And of course, some school years have gone much better than others. I have come to realize that that is completely normal, as job satisfaction is going to ebb and flow. As I have continued on at my school, I have started thinking more about how my staying positively influences myself and, more important, my colleagues and our students. 

In our culture, there is now a constant underlying desire to leave, to mix things up, to get a title change, or to climb some ladder. It has become so prevalent that it’s now unusual to want to stay at a job and create roots and build institutional knowledge. I’ve seen teachers come and go, many convinced that another school is going to be better—perhaps forgetting that it takes time to build the level of community and trust that makes our work at independent schools so engaging and meaningful. 

Why I Stay

Community is one of the main places that I find joy. I have a special role at my school; as a music teacher, I get to teach both lower and upper school, which means that I can form deep relationships with students that bookends their time at Hewitt. I know that many people place having institutional knowledge high on the list of reasons for staying at a job, but I would argue, in my case, that relationships rank higher. 

Conducting our school song at commencement, which I composed in 2007 and have taught to hundreds of my students over the years, is easily the annual professional highlight of my year, as the kindergarteners perform with the graduating seniors and sing the lyrics, “some faces are new, and some we’ve seen for years.” I understand that this special moment that I get to have every June is possible because I stay. It wouldn’t be nearly as meaningful if I weren’t looking at faces of seniors up on stage that I have known for 13 years. You can’t transfer or move into that; the only way to get there is to stay at one school. These are students that I have spent countless hours with, and the trust that has been built during that time is remarkable. At the end of my own 13th year of teaching at Hewitt, the graduating seniors who had been there since kindergarten gave me a beautiful photo collage of our years together, and they told me that they felt like I was a part of their class, as I was also in “the thirteen year club.” It remains one of the most meaningful gifts that I have ever received. 

Cultivating collegial community is important, as well. In 2010, I helped to cofound our school’s social committee, as a way to foster friendships and joy among colleagues. Happy hours at Hewitt existed, but we noticed the need to make them more regular so people could better connect. We started meeting monthly for drinks or a Broadway show, bingo, an outdoor picnic, or other activity. Through this committee, I’ve made some of my closest friends, and I’ve connected with colleagues in different divisions who I don’t see much during the school day. Our head of school even noticed the importance of this community-building effort when she attended the gatherings and saw the connections being made, and in 2015, she gave us a budget for it! I stay for my colleagues. 

There are other times when longevity has paid off. A few years ago, when I was teaching a cohort of ninth graders who were known by the faculty to be quite chatty during their classes. The class began, and sure enough, they started goofing around. Then, without any comment or look from me, one of them turned to the others and said, “We need to stop it. Ms. Lindberg knows us too well; we can’t get away with this.” We all exchanged knowing smiles and went on with class. I stay for the institution. 

When the pandemic pushed us to Zoom for 15 months, we couldn’t do a lot of the things that make music class meaningful. During these times, I focused on my job as a consistent and calming presence for students. My longstanding relationships, built on trust, made success on Zoom possible. I stay to be the constant amid the change. 

Sure You Want to Leave? 

There are seasons of life when one needs to move or change jobs, whether it’s because of a family circumstance, mental health issues, or perhaps a financial decision. That’s all understandable, as life gives us necessary shifts at times. But all the articles on mass job movement in the pandemic, quiet quitting, and the Gallup poll that said that teachers are the most burned-out of all professions in the United States right now have me thinking. 

In the past few years, teachers have retired in droves, and we’re all exhausted. I am too—in a time when singing was considered toward the top of the list of the most dangerous activities one could do for a year and a half, and then having to turn around the next year and try to convince students that it is safe again while simultaneously grow a shrunken choir program has not been what I signed up for as an educator. However, leaning on the trust I have built with families, faculty, and my administration to slowly come out of this madness, has given me hope. I want to give others hope, too, and encourage teachers to try to stay planted at their schools. The benefits transcend a professional career and seep into the school community, making a difference in the lives of students, faculty and staff, and even the parents. 

I’ve noticed that experienced teachers aren’t mentoring the new or new-ish teachers like they used to—their jobs have taken on more and more duties and there’s little time to focus on folks who are early in their careers. But that is precisely when it’s important to share the school culture of support, build community, and emphasize the value of staying. When teachers start wondering what else is out there, they often don’t hear a voice speaking about why staying can be so impactful and positive. Veteran teachers can be the ones to reach out to colleagues who have only been at their schools for a few years. Advice and insights must come from trusted colleagues, not from reading an article.

If we could reenergize our teaching practice by growing our roots in the soil that we have already begun to cultivate instead of replanting ourselves every few years, I can only imagine the impact. Our longtime presence in our communities encourages others to notice our values and to keep coming back. In a time where almost everyone you talk to and everything you read is nudging you to consider changing jobs, consider the opposite: the value of staying and growing where you are. 
Author
Kirsten Lindberg
Kirsten Lindberg

Kirsten Lindberg is performing arts teacher at The Hewitt School in New York City.

Comments

Rebecca Strum
11/29/2022 3:55:16 PM
Kirsten,
Brava! Loved your blogpost. I stayed at Hewitt for 19 years and for all of the same reasons. I was theatre teacher and Creative Arts department chair. Anita Edwards was my best friend ( you must know her) and we are still quite close. I have incredibly warm memories of Hewitt and since I LEARNED so much teaching there I have always felt like a graduate myself! I left because of a business move for my husband but took what I learned at Hewitt and founded a performing arts high school in New Jersey- where I also stayed 19 years until retirement in 2016 at age 68. Warmly, Becky Strum

Matt Edmonds
11/9/2022 1:48:54 PM
Thanks for this piece, Kirsten. I agree with your sentiments... and with Peter Gow's... and with Lesley Younge's. Lesley, especially, raises an important but too-little-discussed fact of life in independent schools: starting a new job is sometimes an employee's only opportunity to negotiate, whether on salary or anything else. We're accustomed to colleagues leaving in pursuit of "advancement," but sometimes--and especially in this "new normal"--they might actually be looking for different or even *less.* Whether they're beginning families, supporting aging parents, or simply feeling the need to go in a direction they had not anticipated at age 18-22, employees may re-evaluate their priorities and re-allocate their time and energy several times over the course of a career. If schools want long-tenured faculty--especially the kind of long-tenured faculty that remains vibrant, engaged, and committed to growth--schools must think strategically about how to support not just career advancement (in terms of responsibilities and titles, as well as salaries) but career EVOLUTION over the course of an employee's lifespan.

Lesley Younge
11/9/2022 11:56:51 AM
This was a great article - thank you. Part of the conversation about establishing a long tenure needs to be salary. One way to increase salary is negotiate a higher one at the beginning of a new job. My salary increased significantly when I made two moves in a short time, a baseline I carry with me now into any future career moves (though I plan to stay a while where I currently teach). That increase would not have been possible if I stayed at my previous school, where negotiating something different than the step system or yearly adjustments wasn't possible. Unfortunately, sometimes in establishing tenure, we are leaving money on the table. Since retirement matches are often discussed as a percentage of salary, the impacts can be very long term. Schools need to make it financial ly feasible and desirable to stay for a long time.

Peter Gow
11/9/2022 11:48:46 AM
I started to write a comment to this wonderful, wonderful post, but it grew a bit out of control. So I turned it into a blog post, whose link I present here with apologies: https://www.notyourfathersschool.org/in-praise-of-sticking-around-at-your-school-and-why-schools-should-help/

Renee DuChainey-Farkes
11/9/2022 11:18:10 AM
Thank you Kirsten for sharing your honest thoughts. I was at my school for 20+ years and there's nothing like watching children/student grow and move on. It's sad too but we get to reap the benefits. Hewitt is lucky to have you and your perspective! Renee

Mike Orlando
11/9/2022 10:25:01 AM
Thank you for this heartfelt story emphasizing the strengths of hanging with a school! I've been at my school for 10 years, and you're right -- while I have a vast amount of institutional knowledge (we've seen six heads in that time, over 100 teachers and staff members come and go, and a messy spilt-off of half the founding families to start another school down the road) it's the long term relationships and trust that I've been able to build that help me to serve our students most effectively. And it brings me great joy and satisfaction to see seeds I planted flourish over the years, even despite the stormy weather they've had to endure.

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