Tuesday, March 23, 2021

(Don't?) Become a Teacher

As an educator, especially one who works with juniors in high school as they ponder the big year and their next step in life, I am often asked by students about the teaching profession. I'm sure all teachers have had those pangs of ambivalence and internal conflict when our students mention wanting to become a teacher. For my column in The Villager a couple weeks ago, I pondered the question and my thoughts about my field:

(Don’t?) Become a Teacher

“Don’t become a teacher.”

That advice unfortunately enters my mind too often these days when talking to students. As they share thoughts on the future and mention an interest in teaching, I can’t help but pause. My reservation is not surprising. Even our most revered educators have concerns about steering young people down our career path, as in 2015, when the national Teacher of the Year Nancie Atwell shocked educators and the general public by warning students away from our profession.

Though it’s disheartening to hear, the profession has long had difficulty attracting and retaining educators, and it has a high attrition rate with more than one-third of new teachers leaving the field within their first five years. Now the precarious nature of teaching is in the news again after the Denver Post reported a poll showing 40% of Colorado teachers are considering leaving the profession. After a stressful and draining pandemic year, teachers cited safety concerns, unmanageable workloads, and low pay as primary reasons for walking away.

The revelation is troubling, but it represents a growing trend as the state and local districts continue to tighten budgets while increasing responsibilities. Nationwide, schools struggle to find qualified educators for the fifty-five million children enrolled in school. Education programs produce fewer graduates every year, and districts find themselves traveling far and wide to lure young people to the field. Additionally, the financial question is tough for future teachers, for they will knowingly enter a profession earning among the lowest starting salaries for any credentialed college degree. They will spend their entire career making 20% less than their private sector counterparts. The reluctance to commit is not hard to understand.

In addition to being content experts and masters of pedagogy, teachers are expected at a moment’s notice to become counselors, nurses, psychologists, social workers, and even security guards. At times of social unrest, such as the political protests that flooded our nation following tragedies like the killing of George Floyd, students often naturally turn to their teachers to help them process and understand. They may even speak to their teachers about issues they would never discuss with their families. Yet teachers can often feel unprepared, unqualified, and even unapproved to talk with students about the issues.

Additionally it can be dispiriting to enter a profession where so much seems beyond your control. Non-school factors are the predominant motivators of academic achievement. And issues such as vocabulary and knowledge gaps from the moment kids enter kindergarten create a daunting and seemingly insurmountable task for educators. Keep in mind that between their first day of kindergarten and their high school graduation, students spend 90% of their time outside of school. Thus, the classroom learning opportunity is a very small window to impact a young person’s life. Yet that is the commitment and expectation.

Of course, no one enters teaching thinking about those problems, worrying about those challenges, or focusing on the money. We think about our passion for learning and how we want to share it with kids. And when we think about the times a student shares an insight we’d never considered before, or asks a great question that had never occurred to us, or solves a problem in a unique way, or simply shows their joy about learning, we remember why we do this. We remember what an honor it is to be a person of trust to another human being, and we realize sometimes we might be the only one. When our students say “thank you” after we’ve given them a really hard test, we marvel at their good nature, and we’re grateful to have found such a rewarding vocation.

A longtime colleague used to pass me in the hallways before class, and he'd say, “Hey, they need you today. Bring your ‘A’ game. They need your best.” So, yes, I hesitate when young people describe a desire to teach, but then I speak from the heart when answering.

“Go for it,” I tell them. “Become a teacher. We need you.”

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