George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

Young People: Don’t Be Afraid to Become a Teacher!

April 17, 2013
Photo credit: jram23 via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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 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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