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May 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 8

Perspectives / Alive to Teaching

      In the '80s, many magazines, including those for teachers, published cover stories on "Burnout—How Do We Prevent It?" Everyone from airplane pilots to secretaries was experiencing a new malaise born of over-extension and emotional exhaustion.
      Today the pace of the '80s seems calm compared with the frenetic quality of the '00s. Educators' workloads and responsibilities have expanded, and an unprecedented number of new teachers are replacing the many retiring career veterans. In light of these new challenges, perhaps it is time to declare burnout passé and rephrase the question: What keeps teaching alive to teachers over time? What will inspire the newcomers to retain their enthusiasm and idealism?
      A recent ASCD book, A Passion for Teaching, eloquently celebrates the dedication of master teachers. Sarah L. Levine compiled the stories, poems, and artwork of 42 teachers who reflected on why they entered teaching and why they stay.
      A research physicist turned high school physics teacher speaks of the pleasure of learning from his students. In seeking the right analogy to describe frequencies to a puzzled student, Ronald Newburgh hit on describing the phenomenon as a faster runner lapping a slower one in a race. The intuition enlightened the student and enlarged his own understanding, which he later documented in a science journal. A reader can feel his excitement and pride. "Teaching, to be effective, must be a dialogue, not a monologue," this teacher writes. "The reward is that we all learn."
      Another teacher begins her story, "I became a teacher because I detested school." As a middle school student, Victoria Gill was her teacher's nightmare, the class clown, and an irritant to all adults. She defied a guidance counselor who told her she would never be a teacher, realizing that "Teaching was one of the reasons I was put on this earth. I believe my attitude toward school would have been very different if I had had even one teacher (who would have tried) to figure out why I was acting like such a jerk." Today, she sees her role as engaging in learning those students who hate school the most.
      The stories are various, the personalities unique, the messages compelling. Over and over, the master teachers tell us it is the learning and the students that matter most to them.
      The Milken Family Foundation, which annually presents national awards to high-achieving educators, recently asked past winners to list examples of what motivates them to improve their teaching. Ninety-three of the 122 educators (72 percent) who responded to the open-ended question named "students" as their chief motivating factor: student success, student achievement, student enthusiasm, seeing children learn, seeing students become productive citizens, and so on.
      Fifty-eight percent of respondents mentioned that they were motivated by intrinsic personal qualities: pride, personal expectations, intellectual curiosity, commitment, a tradition of excellence, a belief in self-worth and the worth of others, and a love of learning, for example.
      A close third as a motivator was professional growth. Fifty-six percent of the educators said accepting leadership opportunities, participating in professional development, being published, learning new techniques, designing new programs, reading journals, and listening to speakers spurred them to improve their teaching performance. Also listed were the positive context that teachers were teaching in (financial support, salary, collegiality) and feedback and recognition (comments from coworkers, community members, and students and grants and awards).
      The respondents were not as unified in their answers about what impeded their motivation, but tops on their lists (cited in 57 percent and 55 percent of the answers, respectively) were "bureaucracy" and "the context." They described bureaucracy as paperwork, petty issues, nonteaching duties, isolation, politics, and lack of involvement in decisions. The negative context of schools included everything from public criticism and a devaluing of the importance of education to staff apathy, poor relationships, long meetings, and mediocrity.
      We hope you will find in this issue strategies, research, and inspiration for keeping your teaching and the teaching of your colleagues fresh. Some of the articles address the orthodox and unorthodox ways teachers restore the joy of teaching and reconnect with their students and learning. Others address methods to shape and improve that frustrating "context of schooling"—the isolation, administrative tangles, and Dilbertism of the age. Our authors show that collegiality and a spirit of community—whether through a video club or a professional development school—can heighten—although never replace—the sense of satisfaction that teachers receive from teaching and learning from their students.

      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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