Teaching is a career that offers intrinsic rewards not often found in other professions. Helping kids learn and watching them succeed is an immensely gratifying experience. So why are some teachers steering people away from the career?
“The winner of a $1 million prize honoring excellence in teaching set off shock waves last year when she said that, given the current climate, she would not encourage people to consider teaching in public schools,” according to Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers.
Veteran teacher Nancy Atwell “decried the unrelenting focus on standardized tests, which she said reduces teachers to ‘mere technicians’.”
In addition, a recent study by the nonprofit Center on Education Policy found that “many teachers feel ignored in education policy discussions and are frustrated with the constantly changing demands on them.”
According to the report, “about half of teachers would leave the profession as soon as possible if they could get a higher-paying job, and the same percentage believe that the ‘stress and disappointments’ involved in teaching at their school aren’t worth it.”
Not all teachers are so disconsolate. After a quarter of a century in the classroom, I still enjoy teaching — a fact I outlined last year — despite the growing and often onerous demands.
But what will happen in five, 10, or 15 years? Will college students interested in teaching seek other careers because they fear becoming the “mere technicians” that Nancy Atwell fears?
I discussed this issue with several of the newer teachers in my school.
“I feel lucky to work in a building where I’ve been able to get most of what I initially wanted out of teaching,” said Josh Hagewood, a fifth-year history teacher. “I get to analyze, discuss, and debate important ideas with students who generally care about those ideas. I’m not sure it gets much better than that.”
“When I’m at school, I never look at the clock,” said Ryan Fuller, a first-year English teacher. “I would always do that in my previous career in finance, but I’m very engaged in my work here.”
Added Ann Deibert, a second-year English teacher, “I’m actually pleasantly surprised by how positive I still feel about teaching because in college they prepare you for the worst, and I’m not seeing much of that. I’m having some of the best experiences and I’ve had great interactions with my students.”
Many of these newer teachers’ experiences are positive, explained Fuller, because they have a limited teaching history with which to compare them.
“I’m still idealistic about teaching,” Fuller said. “The things that bother many other teachers don’t bother me. For example, I didn’t have to ‘change’ my teaching to adapt to the Common Core. It was just a part of the job to me.”
Explained Deibert: “I am standardized-test born and bred. I’ve always been a product of it, so some of the issues in education now with these changes are really not changes to me.”
She’s quick to add, “The jury’s still out on whether it’s the most effective or efficient way of teaching, but it doesn’t concern me because I’m used to it.”
Hagewood, meanwhile, began his career slightly before the introduction of the Common Core and Connecticut’s new professional evaluation system, SEED.
“The quantification of teaching in this era of data has definitely posed challenges to ‘being myself’ in the classroom, but I think I’ve managed reasonably well,” he said. “If I can keep being ‘me,’ and that’s enough to get through to young adults, then I’m going to keep carrying the fire with this job.”
While Deibert is circumspect about the longevity of her teaching career, Hagewood and Fuller see themselves as “lifers.”
“I don’t know if I’m a 35-year teacher,” Deibert said. “I don’t know if that’s possible anymore. But I do know I want to be where the learning happens, and it happens in the classroom.”
Hagewood was thinking in the long term, however.
“I get the feeling that I’ll exceed the requisite 35-year career,” Hagewood said. “If I go the full 35 years, I’ll only be 59 at retirement. I just can’t see myself being ready [to retire] at that point.”
Stated Fuller, emphatically, “This will be my career until I retire.”
Apparently, the deep job dissatisfaction expressed by many teachers nationally hasn’t hit my school — at least not the newer teachers interviewed here. Certainly youthful enthusiasm accounts for much of the positive feeling, and it’s an attitude veteran teachers would do well to imitate.
So as this veteran approaches the end of yet another school year, I count my blessings. I still enjoy working with kids in the school setting even though it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. As my colleagues will attest, I’m good for an occasional rant or two — especially when it comes to the “quantification of teaching.”
But what worthwhile career is devoid of challenges?
“Maybe it’s not healthy,” concludes Hagewood, “but I don’t really view it as a job. It’s more of a lifestyle. There’s a grind to it that you have to live and love. I think it suits me.”
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who also teaches courses in journalism and media literacy at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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