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.