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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Don't Become a Teacher

(photo by Eric Johnson)

I recently had the privilege of sitting down and talking with a Dean of Education, a Director of Graduate Education, and an Indiana Principal of the Year at a small reception hosted by my Graduate Degree Alma Mater. The purpose of the reception was to give Graduate alumni students a chance to re-connect, share ideas, and talk about their careers since receiving their Masters Degree. (MAT, M.Ed.)

Whether it was the timing or the weather that evening, the event was unfortunately not well attended. The event was not a total loss however, as it provided an opportunity for me to talk one on one with people who have very real interest in the direction of education. All three of these professionals were concerned about the flow of talent coming in to the profession and the increasing scarcity of top tier professionals within the field.

The Dean and the Director both talked at length about how this current academic year was the lowest enrollment in many years. The Dean had the perspective that the situation was a temporary lull and that they were prepared for it to extend up to 5 years. He felt that they would just have to find a way to "ride it out" and be prepared for the upswing in both undergraduate and graduate enrollments as educator retirements increase over the next ten years.

Our Indiana State legislature, following a growing trend, passed legislation that devalues an advanced education degree.  The change in the law does not require public districts to automatically to pay teachers a "Masters bump".  The Director of Graduate of Education stunningly stated that with the change "why, other than intrinsic reasons or if you were already close to getting 'it', why would anyone get a M.Ed or MAT?" I sat there, as he went on, and internally just went "wow!"

There certainly was some intrinsic motivation as I pursued my Masters of Arts in Teaching. At the base of the effort though, was that by obtaining an advanced degree was the opportunity to learn how to get better at my job. I wanted to get better at teaching. The change in the law however, was the factor that definitely made me accelerate the pace last summer. I took 9 graduate credits in 62 days, to get 'grandfathered' into a higher salary band before our district's contract ended at the end of this school year. My wife shared the driving on our 4000+ mile road trip out west last summer, while I banged out papers in the passenger seat or early in the mornings, to email to my professors who graciously allowed me to honor a 10 day family vacation commitment in the middle of the semester. 

The principal related a story about how he couldn't find a qualified high school Physics teacher. He struggled to find someone who was an expert in the challenging content (for me at least) and held the license necessary for the job. He ended up placing a science generalist in the position with the understanding that he would need to have patience as this teacher built his expertise over time.

In talking further about the decreasing numbers of enrollment and talent pools, all three agreed that current teachers are often the worst marketers for the profession. There were many stories where a perspective education student was advised "Don't become a teacher."

That advice might be coming from an increasing personal frustration from their jobs. The the seemingly ever growing restrictions on creative teaching and the corollary 'accountability' placed on those outside of education. There are a lot of reasons why someone shouldn't become a teacher. Teaching is hard. Teaching well, harder. I don't think one should become a teacher, unless a candidate has considered a few things.

Teachers are largely unappreciated. Teaching is the one job that everyone thinks they could do. They can't. Outside of the parents of the children in your classroom or your peers, most people don't hold what teachers do with a high level of regard. If you're looking for external validation and praise, don't become a teacher.

A teaching candidate should have a good understanding of the non-teaching elements of being a teacher. Superior organization skills are major requirement of the job. Committees, team meetings, multiple deadlines from multiple inputs, grades, assessment windows, intervention conferences, and on and on. There are a lot of non instructional tasks that demand your time. If you aren't ready to give time and attention to all of the tasks that have little to do with instruction, don't become a teacher.

Teaching is a grind. It takes a focused, year round, purposeful effort. I don't know of a teacher who has ever said that they have ever reached the end of their development. Teachers are a reflective bunch and are always looking back at what they could have done better. The great ones find a way to examine their past and apply meaningful adjustments to their future instruction and student relationships. The aforementioned Director always liked to tell the story of a newly enrolled administration student, after completing his first year of teaching in a tough school, said "that he had seen it all." The Director's reply was "oh really, have you ever chased a naked man through the halls of your school?" While there's no course that teaches the fineries of that situation, if you don't want to be involved in a state of perpetual professional development, don't wish to get better, and possess an inflated sense of self, don't become a teacher. The field doesn't need anymore know-it-alls. We need collaborators and change agents. We already have too many politicians and funderpundits trying to force their agendas on those in the field and who know a better way, but just have smaller wallets.

If you think teaching is a great way to pad your résumé as the required community service requirement in your life's career plan, you might want to look elsewhere for your bullet point. Most teachers will tell you that they didn't feel mostly effective until they had taught for five or six years. A two year stint isn't enough to reach a level of competency that our kids need. The profession needs people who can commit their talents long term. If you think you'll have this "teaching thing down" in just a couple of years or you want to quickly move on to 'bigger and better' things, don't become a teacher.

But ...
If you want to become a teacher,
to help children reach their potential,
share your ideas freely with peers,
embed yourself in the community where your kids live,
take a long view towards getting better in your field,
and put in long hours with little recognition except maybe a crayon drawn picture at the end of the school year that says you were their favorite teacher,
then sign up, because our kids need you and I want you in my building.
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  1. Another great post Eric. I read your blog because you always give me HOPE.

  2. Thanks for reading and the kind words. Teaching is a wonderful job, but it's not for everyone. It not made up of too many 'Oh captain, my captain moments' I want to get better at what I do, and I want to work with people who are on board with change.

  3. Eric,

    This post is beneficial, not only potential teachers, but also for teachers that are currently in the profession. Your emphasis on the importance of organization skill and time spent on non-instructional time (time without students) is spot on. I would also like to note that having teachers that are willing to be change agents is important to a school. Innovation in a school often starts with teacher leaders that are enabled by their administrators.

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  5. Thanks! I agree that innovations by teachers have a much better chance of succeeding or being improved by collaboration with the support of their administrators. Teacher led change can quickly turn quixotic if the building leader is too cautious, conservative, or controlling.

    The level of organizational skills required for teachers, so one is not overwhelmed by them, is very high. I also think, though I don't have research to fortify my position, that these non-teaching tasks have a significant impact on teacher turnover. I think it is very important to inform incoming teachers that if not managed efficiently, those tasks can quickly lead to disillusionment and a "this is not why I got into this" conclusion. New teachers need tools, training, and support to keep on top of all the 'stuff'

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