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“Only the Strong Survive” Teaching? Why This Maxim Is a Problem

by Staff


As another school year ends, I see more and more teachers on my social media feed announcing that this was their last school year. They openly express the pain of parting ways and emphasize that leaving the profession is necessary for their mental well-being and/or family life. As a former teacher who made a similar difficult decision, I can’t help but respond with both empathy and encouragement, responding with things like “I’ve been there!” and “Good for you!” It takes tremendous courage to leave teaching.

However, not everyone in education shares this sentiment about what it takes to leave.

Recently, I stumbled upon a post where a district presented “research” during an end-of-year PD session, claiming that only teachers with higher levels of social-emotional competencies (SEC) remain in the teaching profession. 

This teacher describes the professional development research

Higher Social Emotional Competencies

My Malarkey Odometer went off instantly. As a teacher-turned-researcher, I’m always curious about the narratives districts feed their educators as “research,” and this one was setting off all the alarm bells.

Here are just a few of the reasons we need to stop saying “only the strong survive” in teaching:

It’s not true.

Not surprisingly, the research provided in the professional development is dated and a theoretical piece that only suggests that teachers with higher SEC stay in teaching. The authors have not conducted a study, measured anything on their own, or provided any studies that point to evidence that teachers with higher SEC remain.

Their idea or theory isn’t new, though—a few years ago on NPR, several teachers admitted that “only the strong survive.” But we must recognize that this belief, which suggests that only the toughest individuals or those with high SEC endure in this profession, is profoundly problematic and toxic.

This claim lacks any substantial evidence. The absence of proper research diminishes the credibility of such claims or theories. As teachers, we should always challenge the validity of unsupported theories when others present them as facts.

It invalidates the real challenges faced by teachers.

While teachers in positive school climates tend to experience lower levels of emotional exhaustion, not every school offers an ideal working environment. Proposing a theory that higher SEC alone guarantees a fulfilling and enduring teaching career disregards the real challenges faced by teachers experiencing real red flags in their work environment such as:

  • Coping with overwhelming workloads and unrealistic deadlines
  • A lack of autonomy and trust to perform their duties effectively
  • Experiencing belittlement from colleagues or administrators
  • Limited opportunities to voice opinions or concerns
  • The constant fear of job insecurity

Across the nation, teachers confront these warning signs daily, prompting some to say “Enough is enough!” and leave their toxic work environments. Of course, these teachers have dedicated their professional lives to serving and nurturing young minds. Still, they ultimately prioritize their well-being by departing from an unsupportive atmosphere.

And people theorize it is because they can’t mentally tough it out? Well, I believe it takes more courage to leave an environment that doesn’t serve you than to persist.

It’s a cop-out for lousy leadership.

The idea that “only the strong survive” in teaching can be a convenient excuse for bad leadership. When administrators or leaders propagate the notion that only teachers with higher SEC endure, they shift the blame away from themselves or the root causes of teacher turnover and back onto the individual teachers. This perspective suggests that teachers who struggle or decide to leave lack the necessary strength or resilience, creating a culture of judgment and skepticism rather than support. This not only harms current or incoming teachers but also trickles down and compromises the quality of education those students receive.

Some teachers have painfully departed from the profession, regardless of their love for students and years of aspiring to be an educator. They left because they could no longer sacrifice their well-being. Choosing to leave the profession you love is challenging. It is difficult to say no to something that’s draining you. It is tough to prioritize yourself after dedicating your life to a selfless profession. Those choices probably take a high level of self-awareness and SEC.

Overall, it is high time we challenge and discard the notion that “only the strong survive” in teaching. True bravery lies not in enduring toxic environments but in recognizing when to prioritize our well-being and decide to walk away. Teachers who love their students and choose to leave are not weak; they are courageous individuals who refuse to compromise their mental health and happiness for a profession that no longer supports them. They deserve our utmost respect and admiration, not judgment or skepticism.

Together, let’s reshape the narrative surrounding teaching and foster a culture that values the well-being of educators, celebrating their courage to create positive change in their own lives.

What do you think about the “only the strong survive” theory in teaching? Let us know in the comments!

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