Still Tired of Education’s Glass Ceiling

Blogger's Note:  I'm in the middle of final revisions on my third book right now and I'm slammed with writing!  That means getting new content here on the Radical today proved to be too much for me.  As a result, I'm posting a column I wrote several years ago for the Wake County website.

What's frustrating is that I feel no different about education's glass ceiling today than I did when this piece was originally written. 

I hope you enjoy this…..It kind of makes me sad.

Not long ago, I had a reunion with one of my favorite students. Michael was only 10 when I met him as a fifth grader in one of my first classes as a teacher. He was someone that I hit it off with instantly, and I grew to know him quite well. Michael is now on the edge of graduating from college himself, and we got together to catch up.

As our conversation drifted towards careers, Michael surprised me by asking, "When are you moving out of middle school? You could teach somewhere else easily. Maybe you could go to a high school or college?"

"I'm not," I said. "I really love my sixth graders."

"But is that what you want to be doing when you're 50?" he pressed, "Don't you think it would be weird to still be just a teacher when you're 50?"

And for the first time in my career, I struggled to answer.


"Teaching is what I do," was my first reaction. "I love my students, and knowing that I'm making a difference in their lives drives me."

I've even taken steps to make staying in the classroom a better financial decision. Several years ago, I earned National Board Certification, which carries a significant pay raise in our state. I then added a Masters degree, further increasing my pay. Combined, National Board Certification and a Masters degree has almost made staying in the classroom affordable.

But is being "just a teacher" enough? Is it what I want to be doing when I'm 50?

Honestly, the answer is, "I'm just not sure anymore," and that saddens me.

It's not that I'm "burned out," tired by the daily demands of meeting the needs of middle schoolers. In fact, I still thrive on my interactions with my students. It's also not that I feel "disrespected" by society as a whole. While the criticisms of public schooling can be trying, I know that I have been successful within my school and community.

What has me doubting my decision to finish my career in the classroom is that despite great successes, I've recognized that I am still "just a teacher" in the eyes of most people.

My day-to-day responsibilities haven't changed in 17 years, and are no different than the responsibilities of the first year teachers in my building. While I am currently working for an administrative team that believes in empowering teachers, I still find myself wanting more input in conversations related to education at all levels.

Teaching is truly a "flat profession."

There are no real opportunities for teachers to "advance" and remain classroom teachers at the same time. To get the additional influence that I want, I'm going to have to leave my classroom for a career in school administration or educational policy—and lose my connection with my students.

That is incredibly frustrating.

It is time to break education's "glass ceiling" and to stratify teaching.  If we hope to retain our most accomplished teachers, we must work to create school-level leadership positions for teachers who want to stay in the classroom and advance as well.

There are successful stratification models being tried across the country, and several have been proposed here in our state. All have the potential to inspire teachers looking for opportunities to grow professionally.

But these initial efforts are slow to develop and to be embraced by a society that largely still views teaching as something slightly less than professional work. Until these perceptions change, teachers will continue to be forced to make the difficult decision to remain "just a teacher" or leave the part of the profession that they love the most.

As for me, what will I be doing when I'm 50?

I don't know. I haven't decided yet.

4 comments

  1. Ian

    While I can empathize with disgust at those moments of disrespect for our profession, moments that happen in almost every second of media coverage of education, I have to disagree that greater “stratification” or hierarchy is the solution. I can imagine an entrenched hierarchy as totally suffocating to any innovative or younger teacher. Hierarchy, in general, has a poor track record for encouraging human beings to do their best or to feel their most fulfilled. I’m by no means enlightened, but this sort of system would make me far less happy to be a teacher.

  2. Bill

    Well, being 52, I’m on the other side of the “when you’re 50” marker point. As a middle school dean who also teaches four courses, I have the kind of hybrid job of which a lot of people dream. Immersing myself in the intersection of philosophy and practice energizes me. Stepping into the classroom energizes me. Still, one thing I’ve realized from this job is that forced into a choice, I would go with the kids. I don’t see myself being hapoy leading people whi work day to day with the people who are the whole reason this job even exists without having any contact with kids. But that’s me. We all have our own life paths, and don’t always see where we’re going until we’re basically there.

  3. Sonja

    This reminds me of when I was in my first two months of teaching, and I said to a veteran colleague, “teaching seems to be a profession where even if you deliver excellence, you don’t get a lot of recognition.” She nodded vigorously.
    That said, I don’t have any plans to leave the classroom. As I grow older, I believe more and more that to be truly educated is to often be alone and misunderstood. In the classroom, we have the opportunity to pass on to students a way of looking at the world that can change or even save lives. A few administrators seem to have the ability to do this as well; but for the most part, I believe to leave the classroom is to leave the magic behind.
    As Pink Floyd put it, “did you exchange / A walk on part in the war / For a lead role in a cage?”

  4. Damian

    Ugh… no matter how many times I hear it, the phrase “just a teacher” never fails to set my teeth on edge.
    I left the classroom, but it had nothing to do with me ‘rising above my station’; it was just a desire to do a different job in the education field. Still, many people congratulated me on my ‘promotion’ when I left, which always made me feel uncomfortable, since I get paid on exactly the same pay scale as my teaching colleagues (and yes, I corrected everyone who made this error).
    Your post reminded me of this very brief blog post I wrote almost exactly one year ago: http://www.apaceofchange.com/2009/12/14/words-mean-things/ Disrespect for this profession is deeply ingrained in our culture that it comes through even when it’s not necessarily intended.