Hennessy to 'undervalued' teachers: 'Tell people about what you do'

Stanford institute takes aim at burnout among teachers in high-poverty schools

Addressing the burnout rate of young teachers in high-poverty schools is a goal of a new Stanford University summer institute that wraps up its inaugural two-week session today.

Nearly 100 teachers from schools across the country attended the program, discussing topics like how to become leaders, how to facilitate rigorous discussions in their classrooms and how language and identity affect student learning.

The teachers even got a pep talk from Stanford President John Hennessy -- the son and the husband of teachers -- about the critical importance of their work.

Teachers themselves, Hennessy said, can do more to boost the "dramatically undervalued" image of their profession by talking up what they do.

"You're doing one of the absolutely most important things that occurs in this country, the education of the next generation," Hennessy told the teachers.

"When your friends start talking about the great deal they made on Wall Street or the new product at Google, you need to talk about this young person in your classroom that you did an extraordinary job at inspiring or how they overcame their challenges," he said.

Professor of Education Pam Grossman, who secured an anonymous $4.5-million grant that will fund the summer teachers' fellowship for the next four years, said, "We lose so many teachers in the first five years, and, ultimately, the kids lose out."

Grossman said she wants to help stop the "revolving door" of teachers in low-income schools by creating a network so teachers know they're not alone. "We can also give them the intellectual stimulation they crave and provide the resource and facilities of Stanford to help them grow and be inspired," she said.

Sara Heaps, entering her fourth year as a science teacher at Aspire East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy, said she originally thought she'd teach only three or four years.

"I'll probably stay around much longer than I anticipated," said Heaps, a Stanford human-biology major who wrote an undergraduate honors thesis on educational inequality.

But Heaps told Hennessy in a question-and-answer session that her Stanford classmates, while originally supportive of her career choice, sometimes seem surprised when they learn four years later that she's "still teaching."

"They think I must not be able to get another job," she said, asking Hennessy, "What role can institutions like Stanford play in professionalizing teaching?"

Hennessy said universities should invest more in teacher education.

"We spend less to educate a teacher than we do to educate a social scientist, an engineer, scientist, chemist or biologist," he said. "If we want to educate great science teachers, we should spend more, because they not only have to master the discipline but also master the skill of becoming a great teacher."

Hennessy said the U.S. also has it backward in allocating K-12 resources. Even as the global economy has grown more competitive, the student population is becoming more diverse, needy and challenging. "We should be spending more on the poorest kids because they come with the biggest challenges," he said.

Heaps' teaching colleague Erin Kohl, starting her fourth year as an English teacher at Aspire East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy, said she chose the profession because, "I started thinking that if I wanted to have the most impact, probably teaching is the way to do it."

A huge challenge, she said, is customizing her instruction to the individual needs of 30 students in the classroom.

"When someone is met at their level, that's where the most learning takes place," Kohl said. "Trying to be responsive to 150 people every single day in a way that's substantive and meaningful is incredibly challenging."

"A lot of people just leave the profession because it's really hard," Heaps said. "People don't have that expectation when they enter it."

And yet, Kohl said, "The kids are shockingly resilient. They go through lots of personal struggles, but they still show up to school ready and able and willing to learn and keep moving forward. It's impressive."

"We have daily evidence of that," Heaps said. "Our kids are pretty phenomenal."

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Like this comment
Posted by randy albin
a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 1, 2014 at 10:35 am

well, try to live in the bay area on what teachers are paid. maybe this is setting the record straight. something needs to be done to improve education and teaching these days. this could be a step in the right direction

Like this comment
Posted by An observer
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Aug 1, 2014 at 11:38 am

I have always thought it would be a good idea if experienced teachers could rotate into poor areas for a few years to work with students in those needy area. BUT, they would loose money doing that if they changed districts. they would revert to the salary of a first year teacher, dropping thousands of dollars in the process.. If there were a state wide salary scale that would not occur. so an experienced teacher will stay in the same district until retiring.

Like this comment
Posted by muttiallen
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 1, 2014 at 4:33 pm

muttiallen is a registered user.

I work in Ravenswood District (East Palo Alto) and am amazed by all the wonderful teachers we have who do work hard and stay for years and years, even though they could teach in Menlo Park or Palo Alto for thousands more dollars each year. They stay because they appreciate the wonderful students, and they know they are making a difference. I've been working in Ravenswood since 1997, and the improvements in the District in the last 5 years are phenomenal! It's a great place to work, but needs more funding to pay our teachers what they are worth.

Like this comment
Posted by It happens
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 1, 2014 at 5:13 pm

Burnout is a huge problem when people in the helping professions do not get enough emotional, physical, and financial support. It is a fact of life for such professions, because you give and give and give but seldom, if ever, receive. The giving can't go on selflessly forever without taking a toll on the giver.

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