Why I stopped encouraging students to become teachers

Published Sept. 22, 2012


Seeing teachers publicly demonstrating for their rights during their recent seven-day strike reminded me how I began my career as a college professor in the Windy City during the mid 1970s.

Back then, while recalling my public school teachers and having recently completed two transformative years at the University of Chicago in graduate school, I would passionately encourage my brightest students to become teachers. Many followed my advice.

My routine went something like this:

America needs dedicated and competent schoolteachers. And teaching still is the noblest profession. However: Don't become a teacher to earn a high salary, because you never will. You become a teacher to touch the lives of children, to make a positive contribution to their futures, to literally save some of them from their dysfunctional homes and neighborhoods.

While you will transmit knowledge and skills, you also will perform the duties of counselor, mentor, coach, friend, confidant, diplomat, disciplinarian, judge and, of course, surrogate parent, which may include providing food.

You will need to naturally possess or quickly grow a stiff spine, for you will have to endure the politics of school board members, mayors, state and federal officials and other wielders of power.

You will need the patience of Job to cope with the irresponsibility and bad attitudes of parents and other adults in your students' lives. Learn personal stress management, and don't expect a promotion unless you move into administration. You will learn the psychology of being the scapegoat. You will become one sooner than later.

You will need the stamina of a beast of burden. Depending on the courses you teach and the socioeconomic statuses of your students, you will work 50-hour weeks. You will bring home your students' assignments to grade long after the formal school day has ended. You will attend countless meetings, fill out reams and reams of inane paperwork, annually attend professional development workshops, and hold conferences with parents ready to take off your head.

Many of you will need to moonlight because your day job won't pay enough to make ends meet. Ironically, you will be portrayed as a moocher who gets the entire summer off. Still, you must be prepared to dig into your pockets to buy your own classroom supplies to do your job. You will spend many, many hours on your feet.

Why, you ask, would I want to become a teacher under these ugly conditions? Why? Teaching is our most important profession. It is a calling, and excellent teachers are some of our greatest heroes. That's why.

I dropped this spiel more than a decade ago.

Now I wouldn't try to encourage a student to become a public school teacher in this toxic environment. Even a lot of people who don't hold teachers in contempt easily speak the popular rhetoric of disrespect.

With perhaps the exception of anti-intellectual Australia, the United States is virtually alone in the world in being profoundly contemptuous of its schoolteachers. The negative results — vengeful layoffs and firings, increased class loads, evaluations based on unreliable standardized tests, and the hurry-up establishment of charter schools and vouchers — are damaging the profession beyond repair.

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After analyzing federal surveys of attrition rates in schools nationwide, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, the U.S. Department of Education and Teach Plus, a nonprofit organization, found that teachers are leaving the profession in droves. Nearly half of those entering the field to replace retiring baby boomers leave within five years. The joint analysis shows that teachers with only one year in the classroom constitute the largest single group of teachers.

Inexperience is the new normal.

Some experts doubt that teaching will ever again attract an adequate number of high-quality prospects. After all, the profession is hampered with an ongoing high attrition rate, nearly 25 percent leaving in the first three years. This state of affairs is not sustainable.

A core problem, as many Chicago teachers said, is that most teachers feel "ordered around" and "threatened" and "bullied" by people who have never taught one day, who have not sat through a single lecture on pedagogy. With most decisions being pushed down from the top, teachers rarely have meaningful input in decisions that determine their fate — an unthinkable condition in other fields.

Most Americans with children in public schools expect miracles from the very teachers they demonize so vehemently. I no longer will encourage students to become teachers.