To Teach Or Not To Teach

the wire season 4 classroomTeaching: a relatively stable career that fewer and fewer people choose. My grandfather always said that the reason he got such a great education for free when he was growing up during the Depression was that many “overqualified” adults had no other choice but to teach. Later on in the 20th century though, and especially after women’s lib opened up other opportunities for the ladies, teaching became only one of many options, and not a particularly prestigious or well-paid option at that.

Though Fox News and other media outlets have a tendency to put teachers down, calling their gig “part-time” and their benefits “lavish with a capital L,” a Samantha Bee video from The Daily Show reminds us that some K-12 teachers get up before dawn, work until school ends around 3:00 — and then start a second job.

“I would want a dishwasher,” one teacher and mother of two tells Bee. “But on a teacher’s salary, I can’t afford a dishwasher. … A lot of the time it feels like a thankless job. We feel unappreciated.”

So who decides to enter the field these days — and who doesn’t?

I spoke to three contemporaries of mine from the Oregon Trail generation to get their takes.

One current K-12 teacher in the Midwest told me:

“I think even nine years ago, the climate of teaching was very different than it is today. My professors, family members, and friends were overwhelmingly supportive of my decision, and after a positive student teaching experience, I didn’t see any need to rethink my decision or question myself. Now, I rethink my career almost every day, because it is so stressful, exhausting, and often, demoralizing. But I always choose teaching again. I just love it: I really believe in what I do, unequivocally, and that can be hard to come by.

“I believe that challenging and supporting young people is capital G Good (I feel like I am paraphrasing David Foster Wallace in his grad speech here, maybe) and even when I struggle to do it well, even when I make mistakes, even when it is lonely and uninspiring, it is right. It’s also fun. So even though I am not “new to the profession,” the truth is, many teachers are new to the profession, because they choose it, again, every day. They don’t have to.”

 

One former K-12 teacher explained her decision to quit:

“Ultimately I think my decision to leave was simple, I really wore myself to the bone, and the rewards didn’t outweigh the losses: of my time, sanity, and the fact I was too trained for other things. I never felt like I was making a dent because there were there were so may forces working against me, and the kids, in their circumstances. For example, my first year I didn’t want to use the try standard curriculum for Language Arts that revolved around book excerpts and dumb questions. So I did novel units and bought all sorts of guides with my own money to do enrichment activities, teach critical thinking, etc. It was way more enjoyable, and on some level fostered a joy for reading, but so many of the kids were so far below grade level that that challenge ended in my feeling frustrated. I felt that I had to either sacrifice quality teaching or my sanity.

“I didn’t feel I rose to the occasion, but I also didn’t know it would require so much sacrifice. I also think I had a very outsized view of my own importance.

“Teaching abroad in Istanbul was supposed to be a “break” from public schools. I taught the IB curriculum an elite private school there, and had all the resources I need, but found myself even more frustrated with the sense of entitlement and lack of respect. Particularly among the Latino families I taught in the U.S., parents really respected my authority. I got frustrated with the Kafka-esque Turkish system too but that’s another story. Anyway one year into my two year contract, I couldn’t imagine going back to the grind. I applied to graduate school. So leaving was a combination of a natural life shift and feeling like I didn’t fit on either end of the education spectrum.”

 

And one current K-12 teacher in NYC explained her decision to stay:

“You’ve probably seen those venn diagrams about “the perfect job” or “finding your purpose” — there was one going around Facebook and Twitter a couple weeks ago. They’re kind of silly but they are a pretty accurate encapsulation of why teaching is close to the ideal job for me. It’s a very satisfying intersection of intellectually compelling, emotionally rewarding work that feels genuinely meaningful and keeps me financially secure.

“Why teaching is an awesome job:

Essentially you are trying to engineer what happens inside another person’s brain. That is DIFFICULT and COOL.

It is creative. Even if you’re not responsible for your own curriculum materials, you are definitely going to be creating something that requires genuine imagination. Most likely you ARE going to be responsible for writing lessons, unit plans, and assessment tasks, which is super fun. I LOVE planning; it’s kind of like doing a really interesting, challenging, intricate puzzle. Essentially you are trying to engineer what happens inside another person’s brain. That is DIFFICULT, and COOL, especially when you see it working.

It is non-repetitive. Inevitably, students will ask me if I get sick of teaching the same lesson over and over (4 times a day, or over and over in my career…), but the truth is I do very little over and over. You have constant opportunity for revision, improvement, and tweaking. Plus, I do vastly different things every day. On Monday I prepared by carving up and drawing on a bunch of russet potatoes. On Tuesday I sorted through recent seismic data using the IRIS earthquake browser. Today I played with clay and magnets.

It is active. You spend most of your day moving, walking around the classroom and school building. so much nicer than being sedentary at a desk for most of the day.

It is data-driven, at least right now. I know lots of teachers bemoan this trend in education but I love collecting, analyzing, and contemplating data. Being a teacher means you have constant access to massive amounts of data on human cognition and learning. Thinking about how people learn is SO INTERESTING.

But, the complement to my last point: it is human-driven above all. The relationships you develop with your students can be genuinely meaningful and important. There’s a reason a school’s or teacher’s responsibility for students is “in loco parentis” — the decisions you make for your students, and the relationships you build with them, really do affect them. (Sometimes not as much as you wish, but still.)

You get a lot of vacation time. Teachers definitely argue that they don’t really get that time off, because they have to work on curriculum plans, or take on another job to pay the bills, or something. But really, in my experience at least, we are on vacation when school isn’t in session. Sure, I do some work over the summer, but it’s extremely flexible work that doesn’t prevent me from, say, going to the beach with my family at 11 am on a Tuesday. My husband and I are both teachers, so we get the whole summer off together, which is wonderful, especially now that we have a child.

The reason that veteran teachers leave despite claiming to love the profession is standardized tests. The high-stakes assessment situation has gotten pretty out of control in this country.

“The most common complaint I see about teaching these days, the reason that veteran teachers leave despite claiming to love the profession, is standardized tests. I also feel pretty strongly that the high-stakes assessment situation has gotten pretty out of control in this country. I am not anti-assessment, but the tests are kind of bad and the stakes attached to them are kind of unreasonable. it is completely awful to have this high-stakes test that is too hard for your students (for whatever reason: literacy, poverty, math skills, you name it) AND serves as the primary external measure of your worth as a teacher AND is a serious mismatch with what we know about deep learning.

“It makes me feel physically ill sometimes. but the test doesn’t dictate very much about how I teach (and to teachers at a school where they hand you a test prep curriculum, I would say: leave. find a school that values something in addition to test scores). My students need to know how to interpret geologic cross sections on a standardized test. Just because it’s on the test doesn’t make it any less fun to cut into multi-layered cupcakes, or build model landforms out of cardboard and salt dough, or hold trilobite fossils in your hand and think about how different the earth must have been when they were alive.

“Tl;dr = yes, the tests suck. but teaching does not.”

 

What’s your take? Do you have a story about why you chose, or didn’t choose, teaching? Did you never consider it or are you still playing with the idea of doing it? Get at me!

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