For Hallie Goertner, teaching is both profession and passion, a career she believes deserves more respect. Max Bonilla says “teachers give everything” to provide students the tools to succeed, but he worries about high rates of burnout.
As the new school year begins, the Walton Family Foundation is celebrating the great work that Hallie and Max, and all of our country’s teachers, do every day to prepare their students for a lifetime of opportunity.
“We all depend on teachers to prepare our country’s next generation for the future. We expect a lot from teachers. In turn, teachers deserve our respect and support,” says foundation board chair Carrie Walton Penner.
We asked Hallie and Max what teaching means to them and the challenges they face in the classroom.
Hallie is a primary Montessori teacher at Lee Montessori Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. Hallie is a D.C. native who attended a variety of public schools, including a Montessori school.
What does being a teacher mean to you?
I never thought I would ever be a teacher. Throughout my life, I’ve worked at summer camps and after school programs and thoroughly enjoyed being around kids, but I never wanted to be a teacher. Ironically, I got a job as an assistant at a Montessori school in D.C. as I was “figuring out what I wanted to do with my life.” Within two months of working at that school I realized that teaching, in fact, was exactly what I wanted to do.
And now I can’t imagine doing anything else. My life feels right, especially because I am working in the neighborhood I grew up in. The theme of hard work resonates for all teachers. It is so worth it, but we need this profession to be more sustainable so we can do better for children, so our physical and emotional limitations are not holding us back.
What is the biggest challenge of the job for you?
My toughest challenge is that I have so many ideas, and an energy and passion for this job, but not enough time to execute on everything I want to do for every child. I want to give each one of them every ounce I have to give, but it simply isn’t possible or realistic in order to be sustainable throughout the school year. My challenge is stepping back and trying to manage my time and energy to get the most out of every minute with these students.
What can be done to keep more teachers in this profession?
I feel very strongly that we have to make teaching sustainable, which it is not right now. In today’s society, there is an attitude that working with children is lesser than other professions and not respected. Teachers are helping children become the adults they are going to be, yet they are not held on the pedestal that doctors or lawyers are. We are talking about the people responsible for forming the future of our world. And this goes for anyone interacting with children – the front desk, assistants, day care – everyone needs to be respected and paid appropriately so they can live where they teach. It shouldn’t be a struggle for people dedicating their lives to the community to make ends meet. We have to change the culture and give teachers the credit they deserve, which will do a lot to stop teacher burnout and keep great teachers in the profession.
Max is a lead K-2 innovation teacher at KIPP CLIMB Academy in Houston, Texas. Max is a KIPP alumnus himself who, as a teacher, makes the most out of his school’s unique proximity to NASA headquarters to infuse aspects of space and reaching new frontiers into his classroom.
What brings you the most joy about teaching?
Even though in the “present” we can’t see the full impact we are having on kids, I know from experience that we are. I was a KIPPster and there are many moments where there was a teacher who gave me something that later changed the way I thought – that echoed into my adulthood. Knowing that I am having an impact on these kids and that at some point it will do something for them brings me great joy. I always think that the conversation I might have with that student about the solar system may be the spark that gets her thinking, that might lead to her subscribing to the NASA newsfeed, or listening to a podcast that opens her mind, and that will result in a new level of understanding that will help when they get older. It might just be that conversation that leads to her pursuing a career as a physicist.
What is your greatest accomplishment as a teacher?
My greatest accomplishment is my connection with kids. When I can see they’ve gotten something out of all I put into the class. When I can see their growth after the year. When they do things I couldn’t do at their age. When I help them develop a passion and the confidence to take on anything they want. No medal or award could ever match that. The icing on the cake is learning that you’ve played a part in them becoming who they are in the future.
What can be done to keep quality teachers in the profession?
Quality counts in education for teachers and students. I saw this with my own eyes while attending the University of Houston: All of the resources that went into the buildings and the quality of equipment in the classrooms, that quality environment makes you feel different about your education. A sense of purpose and pride. There is an obvious difference when schools provide students and teachers with a quality environment. Teachers make it happen no matter what. But they deserve better. We also push people hard – teachers give everything – and then they burn out. Even when they do a great job, it is still hard to retain them because we push them, we don’t provide quality work environments and we don’t pay them enough.