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:
- Teachers have been bashed publicly as being greedy, ineffectual, lazy, and uncaring.
- They’ve been assigned outright blame for the achievement gap when poverty is the primary culprit.
- It’s been implied that teachers, as public employees, are actually responsible for state budget deficits.
- Unprecedented slashes in school funding complicate all aspects of K-12 education.
- Lay-offs, furloughs, and pink slips are undertaken to offset the cuts.
- Larger class sizes and student-to-teacher ratios will make managing classrooms more difficult.
- Never ending, politically inspired reform agendas continually get foisted on teachers.
- Joining the ranks of the teaching profession means modest pay, dwindling benefits, and greatly reduced bargaining rights.
- Expectations exist to teach learning-challenged children without ample support.
- Disrespectful treatment from parents, school boards, and society must be endured.
- 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.
- More and more children and adolescents are coming to school unprepared and/or unwilling to learn.
- Educational creativity often gives way to rigid, forced adherence to scripted curricula.
- The growing influence of zealous religious groups threatens school empowerment.
- Competing paradigms for teaching and learning rarely get decided well enough that teachers know what to embrace.
- Assertions are made that teaching attracts less intellectually talented individuals.
- Insinuations abound that teacher training is lightweight and irrelevant
- Accountability gets taken to such extremes that instruction itself can become compromised.
- The results of high stakes testing threaten teachers’ continuing employment.
- 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.
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.