Monday, January 13, 2014

Should I Be a Teacher?

Every teacher faces that moment when a student announces, sometimes with fear, sometimes with excitement-- "I want to be a teacher!"

This has become a touchy topic. All across the country, teachers are abandoning the profession. Our retention rate for new teachers is terrible, and every day seems to yield one more article entitled "Why I Had To Give Up" or "How I Was Driven from My Job" or "Holy Schiekies on a Schingle, I'm About To Rip All My Hair Out If I Don't Get Out Now." At times, it feels like we are at some creepy cabin in the wood where some monster keeps dragging teachers off into the dark, one by one.

So when some new blood announces his intent to join us in the isolated cabin, even the most dedicated teacher feels at least a small urge to say, "Run away! Save yourself!!"

I get it. I do. Even an only-partly-conscious teacher is aware of how much fire we are under in so many ways. And you don't have to be some kind of grizzled veteran (you know-- the kind we need to fire right away so that we can replace them with enthusiastic young temps) to know that in some ways, this is the worst it's ever been.

But I still feel sad every time I hear about one of my colleagues telling a student, "No, no. Whatever you do, don't become a teacher."

I still believe in teaching. I still believe in public education in this country. But at the same time, I don't think it's for everybody. Here are some warning signs that the profession might not be for you.

I don't like to rock the boat. If the people in charge tell me to jump, I won't even be lippy enough to say "how high?"

There was a time when teaching was a good profession for mild-mannered go-along folks. That time has passed.

It's not just that you are going to have to stand up for yourself when you are directed to do things that are unethical, illegal, or just educational malpractice. At some point in your career, you are going to have to be an advocate-- perhaps the only advocate-- for a child. Filing the right paperwork and trusting the Powers That Be to do the right things will not be enough. That child will need a champion. Most of your students will need a champion.

I'm not advocating that you see yourself as some sort of knight in armor battling monsters under every rock. I'm not suggesting that you view all your interactions with administration as Us vs. Them antagonism-- that's just terrible for everybody. But you are going to be surrounded by allies and obstacles, and you must be ready to push through those obstacles, whatever form they may take.

I always liked [insert subject here] and now I guess what I can do with it is be a teacher.

No no no. Teaching is not a default profession. Not any more. If you think it's something you can just wander in and do because, well, it's a job, then teaching will eat you up and spit you out faster than a vegetarian with a mouthful of cow tongue.

It isn't just that you'll lack the toughness. It's that a teacher has to know what he's doing. By which I mean, you must know why you're teaching what you're teaching. You must know what the point is, what the purpose is. You cannot cover Chapter 2 from the Widget textbook because, well, that's what widget teachers do, you think. You will never be able to teach Chapter 2 effectively until you know why you're teaching it.

It is a long, long road from "I think I'll teach about widgets" to "I am going to teach this concept on page 13 in order to achieve this exact goal for my students." It's not an impossible road to travel, but it is harder than ever because everything that state and federal governments have to say about teaching goals and purpose is messed up and wrong and aimed in all the wrong directions. If you don't know why you're standing in that classroom, there are many many highly authoritative sources just waiting to tell you the wrong answer.

We get summers off, right?

Oh, just go away.

I'll just try it for a while.

The Humane Society won't even let you just try out a puppy for a few weeks. And children are not puppies. The profession does not need drive-by do-gooders or edu-tourists ready to go slumming among the little people for a short time. A school building is just a building. A school is a community of teachers and students, and even the students are just passing through. Schools need teachers who are in it for the long haul, who will provide stability.

So don't date a single parent and tell the kids that you'll just play at being their step-parent for a little while. Don't propose to your girlfriend by saying, "Let's try out this engagement thing for a little while." And don't try being a teacher for a while. Do it, or go away.

So should I be a teacher? Seriously? Can I get an answer?

Teaching is hard work. It is no longer stable and dependable work, and the jobs are drying up. People will call you names and blame you for things you could never do anything about. The pay is not great, and there will not be some great outpouring of love and support to make up the psychic difference. On top of that, you will work in isolated circumstances and sometimes find yourself working for idiots who will evaluate you based on terrible, stupid systems.

Teaching is not the only job in the world that sets less-than-ideal conditions. There are lots of reasons that teaching sucks. But in this respect, it has merely become like many other professions, where the work is hard to get and hard to do. And the answer to "Should I do this" is the same for teaching as it is for jet piloting or deep sea diving or playing in a heavy metal polka band--

Do it if it's what you want to do.

If it's what you want to do-- HAVE to do-- then go for it. There will always be time to give up later if you must, but in the mean time, is this what you want to do? If so, do it! If it's what you must do, if it's what you're driven to do, if it's what you're passionate about doing-- then do it.


I became a teacher because I had to. I had to in the same way that I have to write and I have to make music and have to exercise. Because if I don't, I don't feel myself. Teaching, as crazy-making and challenging and frustrating and miserable as it can be, makes me feel fully me. It hooks me up to my students and my community and the world around me in a way that nothing else can.

It is work that must be done. I think of it a little like jury duty-- do you want this essential job done by somebody who treats it with serious dedication? Are you that person?

If it makes you feel something like that, damn the torpedoes and slap that pedal to the floor. Should you be a teacher? I don't know. If you WANT to be a teacher, then you should not let anything stop you, including grumpy old educators who are worried about the future. Would I do it all over again, if I knew what I know now? I sure as hell would. I am a teacher, dammit. Maybe some day I'll be ready to hang it up, but even if that day comes, I won't regret any of the days that came before. If you can imagine feeling like that, come join me.

2 comments:

  1. Thank you. I needed to hear that.

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