Why Would Anyone Want To Become a Teacher Nowadays?

By Bill Henk – Last week I found myself confronted with a very unsettling question.  It centered on my decision to become a teacher in the first place.  Although the question was hypothetical, low stakes, and past tense for me, I couldn’t ignore the harsh reality it held for young adults considering teaching careers.  So, here’s the question:

If I had it to do over again, would I still choose to become a teacher?

So you know, this issue popped into my mind at a meeting of all of the Education deans in our region, each of whom oversees programs that prepare future teachers.  Admittedly, the same question or some version of it had occurred to me on occasion over the past few months.  But this time around I couldn’t seem to shake it.

As a group we were talking about ways we could work together to help our local schools and their students.  For reasons I can’t recall, though, the conversation turned to freshman enrollments in our respective teacher education programs.

As it turned out, every single dean reported that the numbers of new students in teacher education programs had declined notably this fall compared to past years.  Perhaps it’s too simplistic of an explanation, but generally the group surmised that the adverse political climate for teachers in Wisconsin (and other states) this past spring had dissuaded significant numbers of young people from entering the teaching profession.  Sad to say, I couldn’t help thinking, “Who could blame them?”

At any rate, that question gave rise to wondering about whether I would personally choose to be a teacher in this day and age.  So, I’m devoting the rest of this post to exploring that prospect.  I’m going to try to put myself in the role of a high school upperclassman making that decision.  Suffice it to say that it’s risky business for Education deans to speculate publicly on all the reasons why students might want to steer clear of their Colleges!

Teaching has been VERY good to me, but…

Because teaching turned out to be such a gratifying and fortunate career choice for me, I initially dismissed the idea that I would now choose something else.  But in fairness, I hadn’t allowed myself to acknowledge how much teaching had changed over the years, and especially the ways in which the recent dramatic events in Madison might influence me.  The more I thought about it, the less sure I became that I’d make the same career choice again.  And I offer that sobering statement at the same time I would tell you that I dearly love teaching — always have, always will.

So, let’s imagine I’m 18 years old again and pondering whether teaching represents a profession I’d want to pursue.  My guess is that I’d be pretty tuned in to media accounts about education that might inform my choice.

Looking around now, what would be different from years ago when teaching seemed like a very noble and meaningful career choice to me?  In a word, PLENTY!

More than a decade ago, three teacher educators at Oregon State University (LeoNora Cohen, Karen Higgins, and Don Ambrose) thoughtfully summarized the climate for teaching in a set of instructional modules they called “The Killing of the Teaching Profession.”  I borrow from that work here, and although I have added my own related thoughts, I encourage readers to explore the original source.

In short, the authors begin their argument with the following provocative statement:   The teaching profession is under siege and the battle is intensifying.”  And here’s the thing.  That was 1999.  The battle has indeed intensified in the last decade.  It seems much worse to me now.

To Teach or Not to Teach:  That is the Question

So what might teaching look like to a would-be educator in 2011?  The following list of 20 disincentives pretty much sums up the downside:

  1. Teachers have been bashed publicly as being greedy,  ineffectual, lazy, and uncaring.
  2. They’ve been assigned outright blame for the achievement gap when poverty is the primary culprit.
  3. It’s been implied that teachers, as public employees, are actually responsible  for state budget deficits.
  4. Unprecedented slashes in school funding complicate all aspects of K-12 education.
  5. Lay-offs, furloughs, and pink slips are undertaken to offset the cuts.
  6. Larger class sizes and student-to-teacher ratios will make managing classrooms more difficult.
  7. Never ending, politically inspired reform agendas continually get foisted on teachers.
  8. Joining the ranks of the teaching profession means modest pay, dwindling benefits, and greatly reduced bargaining rights.
  9. Expectations exist to teach learning-challenged children without ample support.
  10. Disrespectful treatment from parents, school boards, and society must be endured.
  11.  Too many schools have become havens for overindulged, ill-behaved students, some of whom are capable of violence; other schools are filled with students who receive little encouragement or support from their families.
  12. More and more children and adolescents are coming to school unprepared and/or unwilling to learn.
  13. Educational creativity often gives way to rigid, forced adherence to scripted curricula.
  14. The growing influence of zealous religious groups threatens school empowerment.
  15. Competing paradigms for teaching and learning rarely get decided well enough that teachers know what to embrace.
  16. Assertions are made that teaching attracts less intellectually talented individuals.
  17. Insinuations abound that teacher training is lightweight and irrelevant
  18. Accountability gets taken to such extremes that instruction itself  can become compromised.
  19. The results of high stakes testing threaten teachers’ continuing employment.
  20. Media criticism of schools is unrelenting, whereas coverage of school successes hardly ever occurs.  And since high school students would acquire much of what they know about teaching from various media sources, this pattern is particularly deleterious to recruiting to the profession.

When All is Said and Done

That’s quite a daunting list, wouldn’t you say?  It made me do some serious soul-searching before I could arrive at a heartfelt answer to my question.

In the end, YES, I would choose teaching all over again.  Don’t get me wrong; there is NO question that the work would be significantly more of a struggle in every respect  than what I experienced in the classroom.  Times have definitely changed, and I can’t say for the better.  Clearly the current circumstances would be less professionally and personally satisfying to me.

But in the end, it’s not about me.  For those who regard teaching as a calling, the work is always about the kids.   Caring for others, or empathy if you will, would always have been instrumental in how I decided to spend my professional life.  In fact, even in the face of a multitude of disincentives, I’ll never be convinced that the work of schools and teachers is anything but  vitally important.   Teaching was right for me back then, and it would be right for me now as well.

What Next?

Oddly enough, all the negativity surrounding teaching could come to mean that only the most dedicated, passionate, and caring individuals will be drawn to the profession.  Isn’t that who we want teaching anyway?

If only it were that simple.  We also should seek to recruit the brightest and most talented people we can to the classroom.  Thankfully there will be overlap, but the sad truth is that we’re going to lose large numbers of potentially terrific teachers if the profile for teaching doesn’t change any time soon.

My guess is that, in the collective,  the above list of disincentives will be too overwhelming for many aspiring young professionals to ignore.  Let’s face it.  The most gifted, promising and talented are going to have a wide range of viable and gratifying career options, and teaching won’t rank among the most appealing.

And unfortunately, it’s the school children themselves who once again will suffer the greatest consequences.

———————————-

Note to Readers:  To learn more about why someone might want to become a teacher, you might want to check out the careers in education link at the  Wisconsin Education Association Council website.

28 Responses to “Why Would Anyone Want To Become a Teacher Nowadays?”


  1. 1 amcfadin October 6, 2011 at 10:19 am

    The 20 reasons that are listed are very real challenges. But if you truly love what you do and have the right attitude, you can overcome all of those! Great post, Dr. Henk!

    Like

    • 2 billhenk October 6, 2011 at 10:41 am

      I agree completely, Ashley. But what I’d add is that the resilience, tenacity, and devotion necessary to do so must be extraordinary.

      Like

      • 3 branded October 12, 2011 at 3:20 pm

        Bill,

        Add to your list false accusations of sexual abuse by students are on the increase that cost teachers tens of thousands of dollars to disprove and then they are still branded by the school and the community. Vicious students destroy teacher’s future for fun. Truth, character and good deeds don’t matter when the finger points at you. Don’t become a teacher no matter how resilient, tenacious, or devoted you might be. Run Run Run before students, parents, and administrators hang you out to dry. Teacher is not worth your life.

        Like

      • 4 billhenk October 12, 2011 at 11:37 pm

        I would never have thought of that one, and am deeply disturbed to hear that unfounded allegations are prevalent and on the rise. It would be reprehensible for any student to make such a serious allegation falsely, taking unfair advantage of the fact that we can’t ignore any implication of teacher sexual impropriety.

        Like

  2. 5 Claudia Felske October 7, 2011 at 5:25 am

    Great post – a devastatingly honest list – painfully thought-provoking to anyone who’s dedicated his/her life to this noble profession. Your question hit me like a brick to the head. I honestly can’t bring myself to answer it right now – too depressing and as a teacher I feel I have too much important work to do to let myself “go there.” Denial as a survival technique – a sign of the times.

    Like

    • 6 billhenk October 7, 2011 at 9:36 am

      Glad you saw value in the post despite the harsh reality it carried for teachers, Claudia. The fact that the vital work you’re compelled to do outstrips any temptation to dwell on this set of discouraging issues tells me that you made the right decision to become a teacher, and that you’d probably make the same decision again — at least I would dearly hope so . Those truly called to the teaching profession seem to lack a self-preservation instinct, and as a result, are incapable of “helping themselves” by choosing a career that is less challenging, important or noble,

      BH

      Like

  3. 7 Denis Navratil October 11, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    Reason #21. The depressing prospect of a career spent listening to whiny teachers complaining about #s 1 – 20.

    Like

  4. 9 Denis Navratil October 11, 2011 at 3:17 pm

    Bill, I am not a teacher but I did work for a few years as a social worker in a school for emotionally disturbed kids. But that is not where my views were shaped. Every profession has its challenges, including teaching. Yet it is seemingly only the public school teachers that are constantly complaining, this despite better pay and benefits compared to their private sector peers. I have no doubt that there are plenty of professional teachers quietly going about their business while it is the loudest and most political among teachers that unfortunately contribute to the understandable public backlash. But this is the reality of a system wherein a teachers pay etc… is determined via a political system. Instead of focusing on a job well done and being paid according to ability, pay etc… is determined by electing sympathetic pols. Not a good system for the kids, but then I have long been skeptical about the “its for the kids” line. So when I hear a list of disincentives such as the one you listed, I interpret that as so much whining, self pity, blame shifting and an overall lack of professionalism. In my humble opinion, you are contributing to the seemingly accurate portrayal of at least the most overtly political public school teachers.

    Like

    • 10 billhenk October 12, 2011 at 4:46 am

      Thanks for elaborating so thoughtfully, Denis. Let me say a little more here, too. My post wasn’t intended to provide any teacher — the many professionals you note who work in quiet competence or the chronic complainers who give teaching a bad name — with a set of arguments for self-pity and whining. However, I can definitely see how it could both be interpreted, or worse, used in that way. Its purpose instead was primarily to gather and articulate reasons to help explain why young people were choosing not to enter the profession, and only coincidentally, why veteran teachers were departing it. If anything, I would have hoped to affirm the champions within the profession who persist in spite of the many daunting factors that militate against job satisfaction. By the way, while the post may have made some of the praiseworthy teachers who read it proud for their personal resolve amidst adversity, it demoralized some of them as well.

      At any rate, having been a teacher myself and experienced some of the challenges firsthand (but certainly not all because it’s notably worse now), I’m inclined to regard the work as noble and heroic. Consequently, I can’t help but admire those who triumph over the long list of formidable forces, many of which are political and often unnecessary, that prevail against them. In my experience, the inept, chronic complainers are ultimately in grossly inadequate supply for the widespread public backlash against teachers generally ever to be understandable or deserved.

      Anyway, if my post arms or enables the undeserving among educators with rhetoric that can be used publicly, particularly when it would not be exercised in the interest of the kids, then I’m especially regretful of that inadvertent by-product. At the same time, I stand firmly behind the truthfulness of the list, and hope that this honorable commodity trumps any negative applications of its content.

      For what it’s worth, the landscape is changing to one that you would prefer where teacher pay will be more strongly linked to performance.

      Like

  5. 11 Hopeful but Realistic October 11, 2011 at 7:16 pm

    I have been teaching for 15 years. I currently have three different preps, all of which require many hours of time to do well. My classes are all at 30 students, with up to 1/3 of my students requiring I.E.P.’s and additional help to get minimally passing grades. My district can no longer afford to have team teachers, so I get a special ed teacher to come in a couple of times a week to help me out. To keep up with the huge workload, my district now give credit to students who volunteer to be teacher assistants. My budget has been cut, my pay has been cut, my union will no longer exist in a year, my insurance coverage will be dropping next year, I can be fired for any reason, and public opinion about my chosen career is that I am a mediocre slacker who went into teaching because I couldn’t make it in a more challenging profession. Based on conversations with teachers from other districts, I have it pretty good overall. My school hired the entire department from another district over the summer. Would I recommend that a young person go into teaching? I would definitely not fill them with a lot of pie-in-the-sky crap about “touching the future”. Two of four student teachers I have supervised in the last four years have left the profession. I don’t blame them.

    Like

    • 12 billhenk October 12, 2011 at 5:00 am

      I completely understand your feelings — including a reluctance to use recruiting slogans that seem absurd against the realities of your teaching life. Touching the future and other sentiments of that kind would seem acutely hokey to you now, but I honestly think that it’s heartfelt beliefs like that which keep many teachers going despite their disillusionment.

      Like

  6. 13 Jim October 11, 2011 at 9:59 pm

    I have been a high school science teacher for over 25 years. In one of my first years of teaching, (which are usually the toughest), a colleague said, “stick with it kid, every year gets better”. He was SO right. While I have very much enjoyed my career and all the great youngsters that I have helped transition into productive and meaningful lives, the events of the past year here in Wisconsin have significantly changed my outlook for the future.
    With the demonization of teachers in Wisconisn, I will no longer encourage ANY of my students to consider a career in teaching, unless they plan to leave our state. In my teaching position, I work with the best and brightest youngsters in our community. These youngsters are in the enviable position of truly being able to be successful at any career they set their minds to pursue. Any teacher who really has the best interests of his/her students in mind would never encourage a talented student to pursue a teaching career in Wisconsin where they will be subject to such a significant amount of public scorn.

    Last spring, five former students were in various stages of teacher preparation programs in Wisconsin colleges to become certified to teach high school mathematics and/or science. This fall, four of the five have changed their majors out of education; the one that is still pursuing a career in education is doing it as a minor, and majoring in a more lucrative related area, just in case he ever wants to teach. If he does, I doubt it will be in Wisconsin. The future is bleak for all teachers in Wisconsin, especially the young teachers. Educational quality in Wisconsin will be negatively impacted by the events of the past year for many years to come. How sad for Wisconsin.

    Like

    • 14 billhenk October 12, 2011 at 5:16 am

      Jim–

      Your thoughts are appreciated. It’s unfortunate that despite your colleague’s accurate prediction that teaching would get better and the enormous gratification you’ve experienced from helping kids succeed, you can’t in good conscience encourage promising young people to enter your profession. It’s been a very tough climate for teachers across the country, but there are many who share your belief that it’s been particularly hostile in Wisconsin. FYI, when I polled our teacher education majors last spring about whether they still wanted to become teachers, those who responded almost all indicated that their career goals hadn’t changed. However, a fair number of them went on to say, “but not in Wisconsin.”

      Honestly, I don’t blame you in the least for counseling your talented students, out of concern for them, to rethink teaching as a career in Wisconsin. But at the same time, it saddens me, because it’s the children in our state they won’t teach who will pay the price.

      Like

  7. 15 Barb October 11, 2011 at 10:40 pm

    Denis – You stated that you only lasted ‘a few years’ as a SW in a school setting…. why did you bail from that setting? Low pay? Work load? Not enough support from parents or administration? Safety issues? Just wondering. Were you able to earn enough on a SW salary to pay back your student loans?

    Like

  8. 16 William October 12, 2011 at 10:34 am

    That is a good list and very realistic, but I have to mention that part of the professions problems are that the shrill noise of the public employee critics out there resonates with people who would normally support teachers. My children are both sophmores in college. One a high achiever and one not. Both of my parents were teachers and so is my brother. However after watching my children go through the school system my respect for the teaching profession dropped considerably. About 30% of the teachers we encountered were outstanding. Forty percent were adequate/competent and the remaining 30% had no business being in the classroom. Now is that bad management by principals (as the 30% were well known to the administrators)? Or byzantine contracts that make it more difficult than it’s worth to try to fire a teacher? It frankly doesn’t matter. But when you have teachers that dress like street walkers, teachers that blame the kids for their own failings, teachers that have angry outbursts and bully their students or teachers that are indeed lazy and uncreative it is very difficult to listen to the whining.

    Now should teachers be made to teach to tests to keep their jobs? No. Should they be paid more given the role they play in society? Yes. Should they have to endure the constant criticism? No. But that is if and only if there is a way to remove that 30% from the profession in a way that is simple and fair.

    Like

    • 17 billhenk October 12, 2011 at 12:37 pm

      I think your remarks are very defensible, William. Anyone who truly cares about kids would want incompetent teachers out of the profession particularly ones who do not represent it well like the types you cite for dress, blame, bullying, laziness, and a lack of imagination. My sense is that most administrators would want them gone, too, but their hands are often tied legally around personnel matters. Lastly, I appreciate your take on high stakes testing for teacher continuance, their compensation levels, and being targets of criticism.

      Like

  9. 18 Denis Navratil October 12, 2011 at 11:59 am

    Barb, I left the sw field about twenty years ago. The pay was the best I had had up to that point. My position was cut – last in, first out – that is how it worked. My second position was ok for a while but management was lousy, the executive director was an alcoholic serial sexual harasser, not of me thank God, but morale was low. My reasons for leaving were largely a sense of futility in dealing with these kids and thinking that a group session once a week was insufficient to affect change. But you should know that none of these experiences have had much affect on my current thinking on the subject, in case you are inclined to psychoanalyze me.

    Bill, good points. I would look much more favorably on the public school teaching profession if the teachers via their union or other methods would support legislation making it easier to get rid of the dead weight. It is a bit hard to stomach the “its for the kids” stuff when the profession does everything it can to protect teachers who have no business being in the classroom. Of course, where parents are empowered in the private sector, this is not a problem.

    Like

    • 19 billhenk October 12, 2011 at 12:32 pm

      I think unions by nature and definition must try to defend all of their members up to a point, Denis. The good teachers tend to know who among them are weak and would like to see them go, and I don’t think the unions are especially fond of protecting poor teachers either. In addition, my teacher friends tell me that their associations don’t always speak for them, but that they’re too busy to put up resistance. I’d like to believe that all unions and teachers place the welfare of the kids first and foremost, but that’s a difficult case to make based on the way things tend to play out.

      Like

  10. 20 Denis Navratil October 12, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    Maybe then we have a #22. Joining a profession either unwilling or unable to rid itself of ineffective teachers. Bill, you are a good sport. Thanks.

    Like

    • 21 billhenk October 12, 2011 at 1:08 pm

      I hope so, Denis. It seems to me that the profession soon won’t be one that willingly or unwillingly provides protection to the ineffectual. But the methods for making those determinations have to be valid, multifaceted, and fair.

      Like

  11. 22 Denis Navratil October 12, 2011 at 1:51 pm

    Yes, but we must realize there is no utopian solution. The current situation is hardly fair to kids if they are harmed by an incompetent teacher. Teachers should teach and be held accountable by principals. Principals must manage and make difficult choices to fire teachers, reward others etc… And principals must be held to account for improvement at their schools or lose their job. Will some good people lose jobs while an ineffective teacher sleeping with the principal gets a raise? You bet, but again, there is no perfect solution. The closest we have to perfection (but still far from it) is among private schools. Everyone is held to account. If the teaching staff is lousy, if management doesn’t care etc… parents will demand change or pull out their kids and go elsewhere. Note also that kids and parents are held to account in such a system. A minimal standard of behavior and performance is required of students and parents must pay the bills etc… and one more thing. My son attends a private school where I am certain the teachers make far less than their public sector peers, yet they never seem miserable to me. Just an anecdote I realize.

    Like

    • 23 billhenk October 12, 2011 at 11:49 pm

      I’m all for accountability as long as it’s valid and fair. I agree that no system approximates perfection. Private schools do enjoy some inherent advantages, but they’re susceptible to human failings, too. In my experience, private school teachers are generally willing to take less pay in order to deal with students who are stronger academically, more diligent, and better behaved as well as parents who are supportive and invested. And you’re right that the private can hold parents and students accountable in ways that public schools can’t, including denying services.

      Like

  12. 24 Lorie October 16, 2011 at 3:31 am

    Hi Dr. Henk,

    I appreciate your experienced perspective and honesty about what future teachers must be prepared for. In my teens and early 20’s, I would have never chosen teaching as a profession. I was one of the low-income students who had negative experiences with teachers, and fell through the cracks of the public school system. After many dead end jobs and some soul searching, I decided that I wanted to ensure that other students didn’t struggle the way I did. I found that I’ve always wanted to make a difference, but lacked confidence in my ability to do so. I love making kids happy, to watch that sparkle they get during “Aha!” moments, and to see them succeed. So, I enrolled in a community college, struggled through the ranks of prerequisites, and graduated with honors. I have just entered the Elementary Education with ELL endorsement program at City University. Admittedly, the current atmosphere of the education career is daunting, but I have kept my resolve so far. I can tell you from experience that the “insinuations” from number 17 are not true. I am a very hard worker, I passed all of the Washington state standardized tests, and I hold a 3.8 G.P.A. The program I am in is very thorough, rigorous, and not for those without a strong backbone. From what I understand, the colleges I could not afford are even more challenging. I am confident I can handle much of what is on that list. The only thing that shakes my tree at this point… is the fact that I may graduate into the ranks of the thousands of college graduates who work at Starbucks, McDonald’s, and Wal Mart. In other words, my “Essential question” will be: “Can I take your order please?”

    Thank you for the article!

    Lorie

    -Future teacher :)

    Like

    • 25 billhenk October 16, 2011 at 9:38 am

      Lorie–

      I commend you for your commitment to children and for the persistence you’re demonstrating in preparing to become a teacher. Your resolve, in light of the many challenges I listed, suggests that you’ve made an appropriate and gratifying career choice that will benefit students who deserve the kind of care and empathy you’re willing to provide.

      Don’t become discouraged about future employment, at least not yet. I thought this would be a terrible year for placing our graduates, but a large number found exactly lthe kinds of teaching positions they sought. It turns out that the negative climate for teaching caused several veteran teachers to leave the profession while the “getting was still good.” And their departure created many vacancies that didn’t fall prey to budget cuts. Unfortunately we lost a lot of very fine educators to this exodus, but it did open the door for aspiring teachers looking for employment. For what it’s worth, my guess is that the job market is going to improve if the country can avoid another recession, in which case the enormous supply of baby boomer teachers who put off retirement a few years back will now make their exit.

      All the best with your studies and your career pursuit.

      BH

      Like

  13. 26 Dale Maule December 21, 2011 at 12:07 am

    Wisconsin right wing conservatives seem to want Nuns teaching in their public schools. They take a vow of poverty.

    Like


  1. 1 A Response to Dean Henk: The Choice is in the Service « The Marquette Educator Trackback on October 13, 2011 at 11:54 am
  2. 2 Will Milwaukee Succeeds Succeed? « The Marquette Educator Trackback on October 27, 2011 at 6:34 am

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