The last couple of weeks have been rough in terms of the media coverage of the teaching profession. First there was Jerry Conti’s Resignation Letter and then Randy Turner’s A Warning to Young People: Don’t Become a Teacher.
Each article paints a bleak picture of the teaching profession today and an even bleaker picture of the role of the humanities teacher in today’s education system. As Conti writes:
I am not leaving my profession, in truth, it has left me. It no longer exists. I feel as though I have played some game halfway through its fourth quarter, a timeout has been called, my teammates’ hands have all been tied, the goal posts moved, all previously scored points and honors expunged and all of the rules altered.
First a disclaimer: I teach at an Independent School where we do not face near the number nor depth of challenges facing by my public school teaching peers. All students of any tax bracket face struggles and ours are no different. But they come to school every day well-fed, confident of a safe home, and with the resources, technological and otherwise, to be able to focus on their studies. Furthermore, Independent School teachers have an immense amount of control over their curriculum including what content we teach and what kind of assessments we give. Standardized tests do not drive our curriculum although the SAT and AP tests are extremely important to our college admissions minded population. Certainly, we have been under a tremendous amount of pressure to adopt “21st Century” practices, but how we adopt them is not mandated by the state.
I know, mainly from my friends who do teach in public schools, my PLN on twitter, and the media that the past 10-15 years have posed tremendous challenges and that recent reform impulses have frustrated and disheartened too many teachers. I cannot speak for their experience or to their frustration, and frankly it would be incredibly unjust and arrogant for me to even begin to try to address these concerns in this post. Instead, I am just going to outline the reasons why, despite so much evidence to the contrary, talented young people interested in social justice should still go into teaching and why it is the most fulfilling, life affirming job anyone could choose.
I fell into teaching somewhat accidentally. Just having finished my masters in American Studies at UVA and considering law school, I was lucky to get a part time job teaching Upper School English in 2002. I was looking for a job, but what I found was my calling. And that is what teaching is, not a job or a profession, but a calling. I was lucky to find mine at an early age, and it has been, aside from my children and family, the true blessing of my life.
The sacred relationship between student and teacher based on the shared experience of learning is the main reason why despite all the negative press teaching is still one of the best and most rewarding jobs in the world. Where else could I get to spend all day talking about books, words, and ideas with students whose eyes are just opening to the possibility and importance of all of the above? What other job offers the opportunity to start over every year and a new chance to get “it” right? Where else does one spend all day being asked questions about everything from the mundane i.e. what is the assignment to the transcendent i.e. what makes a meaningful life? Every day is new and every year is new, a new chance to learn and to teach, a new opportunity to grow and develop strong, caring, intelligent, well-educated future citizens.
No one goes into teaching for the money or the accolades. We teach to help young people realize that learning matters, that knowing your world is as important as impacting it, and that empathy is the most important of all human virtues. We teach to change the future and the present. Furthermore, we teach in America because we are patriots and as Thomas Jefferson famously stated “an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”
“Democracy” as FDR argued, “simply cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” This has not changed and nothing, not the Common Core, not the well intentioned if sometimes misinformed reform movement, or the emphasis on standardized testing in public schools will or can ever change the primacy of the role education in our country.
So to those who think that teaching is just too hard or that the system is just too irrevocably broken, I say this: The “profession” as Conti suggests may not be what we want it to be right now, but the calling-that’s timeless and no disfunction in the educational system will ever destroy it. So please future teachers everywhere, for the sake of our country, our children, and our world, become teachers. Certainly, go in with your eyes wide open. Know that you’re facing huge challenges and that one of the biggest will be societies lack of respect for the excellent work you will do. But also know this, there is no more meaningful, albeit frustrating and challenging job you could have. You may never be able to change the world of education as much as you might want. You may find yourself hopelessly frustrated with the system, but I guarantee you will change lives for the better including your own.