Academic journal article Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue

Chapter 4: Beyond Survival to Thrival: An Urban Teacher's Promising Career Story

Academic journal article Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue

Chapter 4: Beyond Survival to Thrival: An Urban Teacher's Promising Career Story

Article excerpt

Even though it is more cost-effective to keep established teachers than to recruit and replace teachers on a regular basis (Johnson, Kraft, & Papay, 2012), at least half of all new K-12 teachers leave the profession by the time they reach their fifth year of teaching (Gray, Tais, & O'Rear, 2015). Furthermore, many novice teachers who begin their career in high-poverty schools often transfer to wealthier and predominately White schools (Ingersoll, Merrill, & Stuckey, 2014). Consequently, students, especially in high-poverty urban contexts, are placed in an imbalanced system in which most of their education is left in the hands of beginners.

A high rate of burn out is the leading factor in teacher turnover (Williams & Dikes, 2015). Even teachers who remain in the profession tend to lose heart, making teacher burn out a broader issue than holding onto teachers for the life of their careers (Valtierra, 2013). As Ellen Moire (2003), founder of the New Teacher Center put it, "I worry about the teachers we're losing physically as well as the teachers we are losing spiritually, mentally, and emotionally" (p. 3).

Yet, there are teachers who defy the burn out epidemic. Some highly skilled educators vehemently preserve their passion, commitment, and capacity to thrive despite surmounting obstacles (McInerney, Ganotice, King, Morin, & Marsh, 2014). When teachers thrive, their students prevail (Pedota, 2015). Therefore, it is essential that preservice and practicing teachers are equipped with the tools necessary to preserve passion, hope, energy, and determination.

Lipka and Brinthaupt (1990), pioneers in the field of teacher identity development, posed that if" ... in the real-world, experiences of the 'old timers' are actually more important and relevant to learning the ropes of teaching, then how can those experiences be conveyed to or obtained by the 'newcomers' " (p. 227)? Hence, this article contributes to the teacher education dialogue by sharing findings from a narrative study that examined the story of one thriving career long urban teacher for over 40 years. The goal of this study was to answer the question: How did this veteran teacher not only survive but also thrive as a career-long urban teacher?


Although it is alarming that burn out causes a high proportion of teachers to exit the profession prematurely, it is perhaps more traumatic when teachers remain in the profession and exist in a constant state of burn out, or what I call burn in. These teachers embody characteristics of being burned out, but choose to continue teaching, often existing as toxic influences on the school culture, themselves and students. Burned in teachers survive, but they do not thrive.

The concept of teacher burn in is induced from the work of career theorist Michael Huberman's (1989) "teacher career lifecycle" findings. In an extensive Grawemeyer-award winning study of the teacher lifecycle, Huberman concluded that the majority of teachers who remained in the field developed a state of "nonresolution" with the profession, spiritually giving up on the hope that their work offered and existing in a state of disenchantment. Alas, after the 3 to 5-year career-exit mark, we are likely left with 50% of new teachers who remain, but many have lost their original optimism for the work.

The revolving door that prematurely exits teachers from the field is alarming. The modal teacher in 2008 had 3 years or less of classroom experience, compared to 15 years of experience in 1988 (Ingersoll, Merrill, & Stuckey, 2014). Although years of experience are not the only factor leading to teacher competence (Eaude, 2014), Prietula and Cokely (2007) posit that a minimum of 10 years of practice is necessary before one becomes an expert at anything. At the current teacher turnover rate, we are lucky if half of new teachers reach the 5-year mark, grasping the complex nature of effective teaching, let alone becoming an expert. …

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