Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Why do you teach?

There was a thought provoking essay in Sunday's Washington Post by Sarah Fine titled "Schools need teachers like me.  I just can't stay."   I can't say I agree with everything in the essay but I do have to say that it really got me thinking about the profession of teaching.  After four years of teaching in a DC high school, she quits for some of the usual reasons: long hours, low pay, unsupportive, unimaginative, and undemocratic administration.  But she cites another reason which took some bravery to admit.  The low esteem the teaching and principal profession gets from her peers, ivy league grads etc.  Excerpt below.

"Why teach?" they ask.

Do my lawyer and consultant friends find themselves having to explain why they chose their professions? I doubt it. Everyone seems to know why they do what they do. When people ask me about teaching, however, what they really seem to mean is that it's unfathomable that anyone with real talent would want to stay in the classroom for long. Teaching is an admirable and, well, necessary profession, they say, but it's not for the ambitious. "It's just so nice," was the most recent version I heard, from a businesswoman sitting next to me on a plane.

I used to think I was being oversensitive. Not so. One of my former colleagues, now a program director for Teach for America, has to defend her goal of becoming a principal: "When I tell people I want to do it, they're like, 'Really? You really still want to do that?' " Another friend describes her struggle to make peace with the fact that a portion of the American public sees teaching as a second-rate profession. "I want to be able to do big things and be recognized for them," she says. "In the world we live in, teaching doesn't cut it."

I often feel the same way. Teaching is a grueling job, and without the kind of social recognition that accompanies professions such as medicine and law, it is even harder for ambitious young people like me to stick with it."

Now, what she says it totally true.  I entered teaching through Teach for America, every one of my friends entered non education professions, and I still have many friends who aren't in the business.  I have felt that from many people.  Not necessarily disdainful, more like, why the hell do you do that.  But the longer I have stuck with it, and the better I have become at it, and the more involved in my profession I have become, the less I feel the disdain.  Even though I have no complaints about my job, there are times that I feel that peers of mine are making way more money, getting more respect, with the same skill set that I have.  Those times are far outweighed though by how much I love my job.

The Sarah Fine essay made me sad.  Sad that she is leaving teaching, sad that her administrators don't do more to understand instruction and involve teachers in the work of improving the school, but also sad that she did not stick it out a little longer to see that the whole worrying about what my ivy league friends think of my profession is no way to live a life.  

She ends her essay with some discussion of a last reason for leaving teaching: it does not satisfy the millenial generation's need to be engaged.

She writes:  "In their book "Millennials Rising: the Next Great Generation," sociologistsNeil Howe and William Strauss characterize the members of my generation as "engaged," "upbeat" and "achievement-oriented." This is why we become teachers. We seek to challenge ourselves, and we excel at pursuing our goals. Howe and Strauss go so far as to call us a "hero generation." Our engagement also explains why we are leaving the classroom. We are not used to feeling consistently defeated and systemically undervalued."

I would add that not wanting to be consistently defeated or systemically undervalued is not something that hurts millenials, it hurts human beings in general.  Maybe people of other generations stuck with the defeat and undervaluation because they had mortgages to pay and mouths to feed other than their own and their back up plan was not traveling and writing for a year, it was retraining and paying for that retraining in a whole new field or career.  

But that might just be my 37 year old, "generation X" self talking there, I don't want to spoil the youngsters their pain.

Obviously though, despite some minor quibbles with the essay and/or the youth of it all, what she writes about it all to true.  Teachers too often are treated as if they were the problem in our education system and too often we don't support them enough, or listen to them, or make the workplace a vibrant place to  be.  As a principal, I don't always live up to these expectations myself, but at least I try to remind myself of them every once in a while.  And I will try to do my best to engage and value not only the millenial teachers at my school but the other ones as well.  Thanks for the essay Sarah.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Matt. Yes, I feel that I have been around the world and back, back to the profession that brings me joy and enlivens my brain cells every single day. Guess it took getting my doctorate and having other doors open to know truly, for me, that through the door of the schoolhouse is where I belong.