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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Hold on there, Randy Turner. Why are you issuing a, "Warning to Young People: Don't Become a Teacher"? Who are you to declare such a cautionary injunction? I'm annoyed by your lack of nuance, by the suggestion that we walk away from public schools and dissuade young people from exploring the path of teaching. Your article struck a nerve and I have to respond.

First, let me be clear: I agree that our public schools are a complicated mess. On a local and national level, there's much to transform. But at least in the context that I work in (urban schools) I wouldn't say that they've ever been better. Public schools have never served poor black and brown kids sufficiently -- and I would argue that there have been significant improvements in the last 20 years.

I also agree with you that teaching can bring incomparable joy. You write, "Nothing I have done has brought me as much joy...as teaching children how to write." Many teachers experience a joy that's almost impossible to explain to those who haven't felt it -- the satisfaction of having taught kids to write, or learn to read, or creating a safe and stimulating place for them to spend their days.

For me, the connections I've made with students have been some of the most deeply rewarding relationships of my life. I started teaching 18 years ago and am in touch with hundreds of former students. A handful (now in their mid-twenties) are people whose company I enjoy tremendously, whom I admire and who inspire me, and whose paths in life I still mentor. I would not have known these people had I not become a teacher; my life would have been immeasurably less rich. I am a different person -- a better person -- because of what I learned from my kids during my 12 years teaching. There's no way I could dissuade someone from pursuing the path of teaching and from these opportunities.

When I was in high school (in the mid-80s) my dream was to be a history teacher in the inner city. In college I was discouraged from becoming a teacher. My dissuaders cited mountains of paperwork, disrespect from administrators, students/classrooms/schools that were out of control, the traditional forms of instruction that I'd be forced to use, and the lack of pay. "You won't be able to be the teacher you want to be," I was told. "Don't do it," I heard over and over. I explored other careers, but teaching kept calling me -- and so I finally succumbed.

I am no longer a classroom teacher of children. After a dozen years teaching, I became an instructional coach. I wanted to help teachers find the joy in this profession, use effective strategies to teach writing, and see their students learn to read. Then I became a leadership coach -- hoping to help principals help their teachers. Coaching allows me to address and help build the systems that support teachers. I do my work so that I can still encourage young people to become teachers. And I do encourage young people to become teachers.

It's not that what you say isn't true, Randy -- the focus on testing, the national narrative blaming teachers for all ills, the lack of pay -- but I disagree about a couple of things.

First, every single school is not the same. I work in dozens of schools in my district and each one is a very different experience for teachers. I have taught in four schools in the Oakland Unified School District, each one very different from the other. One of those schools (a public school I helped start) was about as far from a traditional, testing-driven school as we could possibly get -- we integrated the arts into all content areas, had small classes, and teachers had tremendous input in decision-making. I could go on and on describing this school, but let me leave it at this: Every school is different. Districts are different, too.

I often advise teachers who are unhappy in one school to explore positions in other schools. It's not teaching -- it's the context. We can change our context. That's within our sphere of control. We can't do much about the bash-the-teacher campaigns (unless we want to -- and then, yes, I'd say we can do something about it) but we can also choose not to listen, or to interpret these messages in a way that doesn't cause us to want to leave the profession.

A Challenging and Exciting Profession

The only way we're going to transform schools is if those of us who don't like what we see stay in it. We need to find places where we can keep teaching in ways that truly serve students' academic, social and emotional needs; we need to keep telling our stories and finding ways for our students to share their experiences in our classes; we need to create alternatives, draw some attention, and then speak. We can't walk away.

Every day I see hundreds of students in Oakland (poor, black, and brown) who show up eager to learn, who want the tools to go to college or get a decent job, and who want to be with adults who believe in them and in this possibility. I can't walk away from them. I won't dissuade young people from learning what they can from these children, or from missing out on the joy that we've both felt, or from serving in this way. This is messy, complicated, complex, emotional work. As Pearl S. Buck wrote, "Only the brave should teach." Teaching is hard -- and it's been hard for a long time, I suspect, for those who weren't aligned to the status quo -- but it's worth it.

When I encourage young people to consider teaching, I'm inviting them into a vibrant movement for social change. There are moments (decades even) that are hard, we have to bolster our resilience, we must learn ways to share our stories, but I live my life by these words of the sages who wrote the Talmud: "It's not up to you to finish the work, but neither are you free not to take it up." I will continue to invite others into this profession.

What brought you to the teaching? How do you stay resilient and continue to grow your craft and profession? Please share with us in the comment section below.

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Mike Morgan's picture

I'd think long and hard before I worked to persuade a child to focus on teaching as a career path. Now in my tenth year, I would add that eight or nine years ago I would have felt differently. There are good points made in this article. But Randy Turner hits on some inconvenient truths. I find myself stretched rather thin. I put incredible amounts of time into designing engaging and meaningful lessons. But I also want to take care of myself, be my own person, pay my own bills, send my own kids to college, and feel proud of the work that I accomplish.

Unless a young person has the trust-fund to support this decision to enter the noble profession (let's be honest, across the country wages and compensation of educators have seen their best days come and go) and the patience and self-confidence of immeasurable volumes, entering this profession in the modern age is becoming more and more difficult.

The facts are that teachers are blamed for every one of society's ills, chastised broadly as lazy and dumb, and targeted as people who don't deserve the right to earn a professional wage. Don't underestimate the toll that those things take on the hear and soul of people.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Community Manager at Edutopia
Staff

Yes, there are challenges, but I'd posit that there are also opportunities that exist now that maybe didn't exist 10, 20 years ago. There are exciting strategies being developed and implemented that can take classrooms and schools to a whole other level. Just look at the some of the Schools that Work, the core strategies (PBL, SEL, etc.), the research and implementation by the community. There's real innovation going on.

A lot of teachers have felt trapped in drill 'n kill, but doesn't have to be that way. Not now and certainly not in the future.

My 2 cents... what do others think?

Gina's picture

I'm glad to have found this article.

I'm a career changer: moving from book publishing to elementary education via an initial certification program at a college where I will also earn my Master's.

Being new to NYC, I have been reading articles online about what it's like to teach here because it's been difficult for me to get a Teaching Assistant position to see it first hand (right now I'm trying to get a volunteer position so that at least I can get some experience).

I have to say, most of the articles are quite negative... To the point where I hope they are exaggerated. It can be disheartening as someone with no ties to the school system to read about how bad it apparently is to be a teacher. I worry all the time that I won't be able to "handle it" and that I'll have a degree that I can't use (not to mention all of the tests and certifications I've had to pay to get).

At the same time, I'm 29 years old, and have experience working in a very high stress low-pay industry where there were no intrinsic rewards. I keep telling myself that at least teaching will give me that.

I hope that I can find a school where the administration is supportive and where I can help my students become better people, not just pass the tests.

Kevin Jarrett's picture
Kevin Jarrett
K-4 Technology Facilitator from Northfield, New Jersey
Facilitator 2014

NYCTeacherCandidate, the author is right, every school and district IS different, so, keep that in mind. How wide is your target school search area? Have you thought about grade levels? Have you substituted yet? These are all important things to help you narrow your search.

I made the jump from the corporate world into teaching 10 years ago. I can tell you for sure that the intrinsic rewards are incalculable. It's a good thing, too, because you'll need them to offset the (potentially, depends on the district) low pay and (very likely) high stress. Oh and you'll probably need a second income (or a working spouse) to make it financially. But know this: there is no other job on the planet where you go to work every day and your "customers" (students) will be honestly, genuinely, and effusively happy to see you. Every day.

One other bit of advice, consider volunteering at your local school(s), even if you have no hope of finding a job there. Immerse yourself in school events and culture. Interact with the kids and adults. It'll help acclimate you to the environment you one day will call your day job.

Good luck!

Dan Callahan's picture
Dan Callahan
K-5 Instructional Technology Specialist, Edcamper, Graduate Professor

Hi NYCTeacherCandidate,
Teaching is an incredibly challenging job, and even mores in urban areas. There's no question about that.

However, teaching is still pretty awesome.

The reality is that a lot of what you'll find on the internet is negative because it's the place people feel they can go when they have nowhere else to turn to express their negative views. People who are happy with their jobs just don't spend a lot of time thinking, "hey, I should tell everybody how good things are!"

The biggest thing that you'll have to try and do when you're looking for a job is try and find not just any job, but the one that's the right fit. What's the school culture like? How supportive is the administration? What's the overall philosophy on teaching and learning for the school. The better you can find a match, the happier you'll be.

Gina's picture

Thank you Kevin and Dan for your positivity!

I'm happy to say I've lined up some literacy volunteer work at a public school near my apartment. I hope that will give me some exposure to at least the school culture at that particular site.

And I agree, finding the right school to work at once I'm certified is important. What I worry about is getting hired at a school that isn't the right fit, and then having to work there all year. I know that it's important to stay in one place for a long time to develop a good bond with your students and administrators... It makes me wish there was some way teachers, former and current, could review what it was like working at particular schools. I know word of mouth is great, but hard to come by if you aren't yet "inside" the teaching culture.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Community Manager at Edutopia
Staff

NYCTeacherCandidate, that's one reason why it's important to start building your network early. Those first connections can help guide you towards a good first step in your teaching career.

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