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7 Reasons Why Teaching is Worthwhile

 

If teaching is incredibly challenging, afforded little status, and doesn’t pay well, why should people teach?

When I left my teaching career in Los Angeles to pursue a doctorate in an Ivory Tower far removed from my classroom, the withdrawals were vicious.  I had never been much of a crier.  My students would probably categorize me as a “warm and fuzzy” type, but I rarely cried during my four years in the classroom (at least after that initial bout of sobbing in the bathroom during my first week). Maybe I didn’t have the energy to cry, but teaching brought me far more joy than sadness. During my first dreary fall in Boston, however, my husband sometimes returned home from work to find me curled up on the couch with tear-streaked cheeks. He was as surprised as I was at the tears. My life was “better” now, wasn’t it? I controlled my class schedule, had plenty of non-structured time, did not have to grade papers or plan for classes, and had hours to sleep and put back on the pounds I had lost while teaching. My courses felt sufficiently intellectually engaging, but something profound was missing from this whole experience. Of course, I missed my students terribly, but I had stayed long enough to move with many of them from freshman year through to high school graduation. In a way, we went to university together. When I got here, though, what I truly mourned was the loss of the most fulfilling experience I have ever had, and in some ways, a loss of part of myself.

I barely qualify as a millennial, and I don’t relate to much of what is said about the millennial generation. However, a recent study suggests that when considering their first job, the older generations sought out positions where they could make money, while the millennial generation sought out jobs where they could find purpose and make a difference. And yet, millennials do not seem to be pursuing teaching, as the horrifying predictions about the impending teacher shortage indicate, but they should. And this is because of teaching’s “intrinsic rewards”(a term I borrow here from the famous sociologist Dan Lortie). As a colleague of mine told me, “Teaching is the hardest job ever in life… but it’s also the most rewarding.” Here are some of the reasons why:

  1. Teaching is never boring. If you have ever had a desk job, you might well-understand the experience of checking the clock. Frequently. Wishing it was lunchtime already. Or 5pm. This is NOT a common experience for teachers. Instead, teachers look up at the clock and wonder, how the hell is it already 3pm? Class periods fly by because teaching requires you to be fully present for every moment. And no day is the same, as students come to class with different moods, different needs, different challenges and different contributions each day. Also, students can be hilarious! At least once my students made me laugh so hard in the middle of class that tears started streaming down my cheeks (my students fondly remember this as the only time they saw me cry).
  2. Teaching is really life-long learning. While the perception of teachers might be that they teach the same content every year, I never reached a point where I could teach the same curriculum in the same order with the same lessons. Every time I taught a new novel, I had to (re)read it and analyze it from the perspective of my students. And if after a decade of teaching the same content, teachers do reach such a point, the students will bring new challenges and inspirations with them to class each day. Tailoring class activities to engage the particular students before you each year requires you learn about the things that interest them. Finally, the students teach you so much about life while you try to teach them academic content. In my four years in the classroom, my students taught me about the realities of racism, the meaning of hard work, struggle and family, the power of faith, resilience, and more. And they inspired me to continue learning every day.
  3. Teaching creates new family. When I interviewed friends who also left the classroom after years of teaching, they told me that one of the things they missed most about teaching was the family they found within it. If you intentionally work to form relationships with your students, they become like family; they want to get to know you, they notice and care if you miss work, they value your opinions – just as you do for them. And often your colleagues become like family, too, because you share students, school structures, and poignant experiences. When I left my school for this doctoral program, I missed my second home and my school family almost as much as I missed my parents when I left for college.
  4. Teaching serves a purpose beyond yourself. What is more important than working toward a better future for our society? Many of the teachers I have interviewed decided to enter teaching because they want to make the world a better place and believe, as I do, that education can help shape society. Helping students to develop the tools of empathy, critical thinking, metacognition, self-reflection, and of course reading, writing, scientific inquiry, and arithmetic, can benefit their future – and truly the future of our society. In this way, teaching truly is a noble profession, as it serves a great purpose than personal advancement.
  5. Teaching makes you a better person. Relatedly, I have also heard from other teachers that teaching made them a better person. In learning about others, forming bonds with parents and families, and pursuing a path beyond your own self-interest, you become better. I am convinced that I was absolutely the best version of myself when I was in the classroom, the version of myself that caused me the most pride. This is because teaching is a job of service, one in which your every waking need is no longer the center of your universe because you have a bunch of other human beings consider. And unlike parenting, you can to go home each night, get a full night sleep (unless you have babies at home!), and then return the next day with a fresh focus on how you can better serve your students.
  6. Teaching grows your heart and feeds your soul. When a colleague of mine retired after 35 years of teaching, she told me that she felt content to move up to the mountains now because she had led a “life well-lived, well-given.” In the service of others, in the service of a better future, teaching is a meaningful, purposeful life-long career, the kind that many of us search for. At the beginning of my career, a student gave me a magnet that read, “Teaching is a Work of Heart.” I did not fully understand this idea at the time, but as I progressed through the years in the classroom, the work somehow became a part of me. Sometimes painful, but mostly wonderful, teaching awakened a piece of my heart, causing it to expand.
  7. Teaching is a powerful identity. I have heard a number of teachers utter some version of “once a teacher, always a teacher.” And I, too, believe this to be an accurate depiction of what happens when you teach. There is something so special about this profession that even if you move away from classroom practice, you still feel like a teacher. And every time you see another teacher, you feel this great affinity for them, as you share a keen understanding of some important part of life that you only realize if you teach; somehow, I “get” them and they “get” me, in part because we know that life is about more than just us.

There are many more reasons why teaching is a fabulous profession, worth pursuing despite all the crap that teachers have to deal with; but these are some of the reasons that I have never stopped itching to get back into the classroom. This is also why I study teaching & teachers because I know how much teaching matters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On how challenging and important teaching is

I think that on some level, most people understand the importance of having good teachers. In the last 20 years, researchers have found time and again that of all the school-level factors (including local policies, school leadership, funding, curriculum, etc.), the individual teacher in a child’s class makes more of an impact on his/her achievement than anything else. Basically, individual teachers are the most important piece of our nation’s school system. But teaching is really hard work – mentally, emotionally, and even physically. You can’t just throw someone into a classroom and expect them to adequately serve the students before them; and yet, that’s exactly what we often do.

“Those who can’t teach, do.” (You see what I did there? I corrected the offensive and inaccurate adage about teaching being easier than pursuing other professions). I majored in English Literature in college and upon graduating, I felt fairly equipped to tackle debates about Shakespeare, read analyze complex texts on my own, and write a variety of essays and reports; but I had no idea how to teach other people to do this. And even though I could have stepped right into the classroom through TFA or another alternative route without having to go through teacher training, I knew better than to subject a whole group of students to my unskilled and unprepared ways. What I didn’t realize was how much I would have to learn before I could teach effectively.

Here are just some of the forms of knowledge & skills required of good teachers:

  1. Content Knowledge: This is a fairly obvious one. If you don’t know much about a subject, you can’t teach it effectively. And I mean, REALLY know the subject. Despite having majored in English, for example, I had to learn a great deal more about particular authors, literary criticism, poetic devices, and more in order to passably teach AP Literature and my other English classes. But across the country, and especially in urban schools and in areas where there are teacher shortages like Math and Science, teachers who do not have an adequate grasp of their subject matter are thrown into the classroom, and without much support. How can we possibly expect this work out well?
  2. Pedagogical Knowledge: This basically means knowledge about how to teach. This includes having a tool box of instructional routines and strategies that can be planned in advance or pulled out at the drop of a hat if the situation calls for it; the ability to assess students in ways that produce useful information for future lessons; the ability to design meaningful curriculum that builds upon what students already know in order to help advance them toward particular goals; the ability to facilitate whole group and small group discussions; the ability to manage a classroom of children or teenagers for an hour or more at a time; and the list could go on. While some might be more inclined toward teaching than others – possessing what Howard Gardner calls “pedagogical intelligence” – the knowledge about how exactly one should approach teaching is not something that people possess innately; it must be learned intentionally.
  3. Pedagogical Content Knowledge: This is different from just knowing how to teach, because it means knowing how to teach your content in particular, with attention to the common challenges of learning this content. The teaching of math varies widely from the teaching of English and benefits from distinctly different instructional strategies. Similarly, teaching Elementary students a range of subject matters, including teaching them to read, requires a different skill set than teaching high school students.
  4. Knowledge of Child and/or Adolescent Development: In order to understand the students before you, and design effective lessons to meet their needs, teachers need to have a strong understanding of the stages of cognitive, social, and emotional development through which their students are progressing. As most parents know, understanding what to expect from children at different ages is incredibly helpful when interacting with them.
  5. Ability to Differentiate Instruction: This often refers to learning how to teach English Language Learners and students with special educational needs, but could also refer to the ability to provide instruction that meets students at a number of different levels and lifts them all up. For example, in a single class, I had students labeled “Gifted and Talented,” others classified as “Limited English Proficient,” others with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for particular learning disabilities, and a variety of additional students with their own particular needs; I’m not sure I ever quite met everyone’s needs. Teachers need a great deal of knowledge and skill to differentiate effectively.
  6. Relational Knowledge: This is the focus of my dissertation and I will go into depth about this in future posts; but briefly, this refers to the ability to connect with students, learn about them, understand them as individuals with a unique collection of experiences and knowledge, design lessons around their interests that also support their individual needs, demonstrate care and advocate for them. This also means knowing how to effectively interact with parents/guardians, as well as colleagues and administrators.
  7. Cultural and Social Knowledge: In my dissertation, I include this within my framework for relational competencies, but it is worth separating here. You can’t teach students effectively unless you have some understanding of the cultural context of their home, as well as the social and cultural context surrounding the particular school and education in this country more generally. What outside forces are having influence over your students’ experiences within the classroom? Over 80% of the teaching force in the U.S. is white, while just over half of the student population is made up of people of color. So it’s especially important for teachers to acquire knowledge that better enables them to serve students who come from different backgrounds than they do.
  8. Ability to Teach to Standards: Teachers need to really understand the particular set of standards they are expected to teach. Whatever you think of standards (and I personally prefer the Common Core to the fragmented and nit-picky state standards that preceded it, but abhor the standardized testing associated with standards), they are a reality in schools today. And teaching to these standards takes a lot of preparation and “backwards planning” in order to design lessons that intentionally respond to such goals.
  9. Ability to Use Technology: Teachers need to understand how to use anything that their lessons call for or that their students will use in class – this includes PowerPoint, Excel, Word, iPads, document projectors, Smart Boards, etc. This seems trivial, but I can’t tell you how much class time I wasted fumbling around with stupid technology failures (that were probably my own failures to fully understand how to use these things).

So consider this list for a moment. Then multiply the difficulty level by 25. Or even 40 (yes, I had 40 students in a class one year). To cite David Cohen again, teaching is an especially challenging profession because unlike psychology or counseling where the professional in the room serves one person at a time, teachers must deal with many students all at once! The mind space that it takes to monitor, consider, and respond to everyone’s needs simultaneously is baffling.

But at least teachers only work 7 hours a day, right? No. Teachers often get to school an hour or more before the first bell rings, and stay and hour or more after school ends. Then, when they go home, they have to grade papers and plan for the next day. And sometimes respond to student emails/phone calls. When I was a teacher, I would say that I worked at least 60 hours a week. I barely had time to eat or sleep (which is probably why I weighed less than 95 pounds throughout my entire teaching career – bad, I know, but my sedentary graduate school lifestyle has fixed that!).

But teachers get summers off, right? Wrong. First of all, most of the teachers I know spend a good amount of their summer working, either by teaching summer school (because they need to supplement their inadequate pay) or planning for their upcoming school year. When I taught, I spent my “summers off” planning entirely new units for my classes the following year, reading books I planned to teach, learning new approaches to instruction, buying supplies for my classroom (with my own money) and writing grants to help fund the projects that I wanted to do. And in the few quiet summer moments when I wasn’t working, I really needed to rest in preparation for the following year. Teaching is truly hard work and it doesn’t end when the bell rings or the summer comes.

Honestly, I don’t think just anyone is cut out for teaching. Despite common opinion, not everyone can teach. I do, however, think that a lot more people could be adequately trained to teach effectively than are actually doing it. Because just like people can learn to become successful doctors or lawyers, they can learn to become effective teachers.

The next President of the United States should quit wasting time and money on “reforms” aimed at changing school policies, trumpeting school choice, or pushing new curriculum and standardized tests. While it might be easier, more popular, and possibly cheaper to try tinker at the margins of the system, we need to tackle the most fundamental component of the whole educational endeavor in order to make real change. We need better ways to recruit, train, and support teachers, because more and better teachers will uplift our whole society.

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Some of the experiences/resources that have helped inform these ideas:

  • My experiences learning how to teach at UCLA’s Teacher Education Program and teaching in LAUSD
  • Much of Linda Darling-Hammond’s work, including Powerful Teacher Education and Preparing Teachers for a Changing World
  • Course and conversations with, as well as articles by, David Cohen
  • The book How People Learn (edited by Bransford, Brown & Cocking)
  • Sharon Feiman-Nemser’s Teachers as Learners
  • Geneva Gay’s Culturally Responsive Teaching
  • My advisor Jal Mehta and the project I worked on with him: http://www.totransformteaching.org/
  • A talk Howard Garner gave at HGSE on revisiting his Multiple Intelligence theory.

How teaching got a bad rap

When I* first decided that I wanted to be a teacher – which was freshman year in college – I often received the following responses: “Why?” “That’s not going to make much money.” “But you could do anything!” As many other teachers have experienced, the teaching profession as a whole is not afforded much status in United States. While perhaps sometimes considered a “noble” profession because of the idea that it is a selfless endeavor, few kids seem to grow up wanting to be teachers. And this is a big problem for our country.

Enrollment in education majors and teacher preparation programs – even the once popular Teach for America – is notably dropping. Meanwhile, the country is headed toward a teacher shortage, as baby-boomers will likely be retiring in droves in coming years. But this isn’t the case all over the world. In other developed countries, including those that constantly score at the top of international education rankings like PISA, teaching is a desirable and respected profession, attracting more aspiring teachers than can be trained or employed. There are a number of reasons why teaching in the U.S. is not valued as it should be. And it is my hope that just maybe, if we better understand the historical sources of teaching’s “bad rap,” we can work to change public perception about teachers.

Our forefathers essentially neglected public education when they constructed the Constitution and later the Bill of Rights. Many of them had received little formal education themselves, and thus perhaps did not believe a focus on education was necessary. Despite what many people think, education is not explicitly mentioned in these federal documents. Instead, the constitution granted all unmentioned powers to the states. And education became a state-by-state right, and one that haphazardly emerged across the country with different laws in different states governing this enterprise, and unsurprisingly, to different effects. This “non-system,” as Professor David Cohen is fond of calling it, made teaching a bit of a tricky profession to pursue, with absent or disorganized structures for training teachers, little consistency across locations, and a lack of initial oversight, which often yielded undesirable working conditions. In a pioneering country where land ownership and trade promised financial advancement, teaching in makeshift schools – often done for room and board instead of currency – was not considered a terribly desirable profession.

Women still wanted to be teachers, though. While most other professions were off-limits to women, society more readily accepted women into a profession built around providing care and guidance for children. From the 1800s onward, women flocked to teaching (often to escape undesirable marriage prospects), which resulted in the common idea that teaching was “women’s work.” Given that the work of women has always been relegated to the bottom of the social hierarchy, this association made the profession less desirable for men. Instead, men occupied administrative roles over schools, serving as principals, policymakers, and professors – setting the rules that teachers had to follow. Nonetheless, women continued to pursue teaching as one of their only professional outlets, thus providing schools with a qualified and dedicated labor force that had few other employment options. This allowed schools to get away with paying teachers significantly less than they deserved for their labor. But when women’s professional options later expanded, teaching became less and less desirable, and the labor pool of eligible teachers began to dwindle. After all, sexism is so pervasive that not even women want to aspire to “women’s work.”

The desirability of teaching was further crippled by increasing standardization in the early 1900s. While teachers historically enjoyed a great deal of autonomy in their classrooms, a new push toward “efficiency” in curriculum and instruction began to constrain the limited authority teachers possessed over what happened in their classrooms. This is a factor that continues to threaten the desirability of teaching, as the reinvigorated push toward new standardized tests and “teacher proof” curriculum continues to frame teachers as mere cogs in the machine of education.

In addition to low-wages, an undesirable reputation for being “women’s work,” and a general loss of autonomy, teachers also had little job stability. Principals often hired and fired people at whim – giving favor to family members and friends, firing pregnant women and those who opposed their policies. While teachers were subjected to oversight, principals were not. In conditions such as these, who would want to be a teacher? In response to this undesirable state, teachers began to assemble and fight for their rights. In conjunction with the women’s rights movement in this country, teachers’ unions were born.

Teachers unions accomplished a number of important advances for both teachers and students. They improved conditions in schools, secured more resources for students, arranged more job protections for teachers, and advocated for more transparency in hiring and firing practices. However, teachers’ unions faced constraints from rules governing how they collectively bargained, including those imposed upon them by the National Labor Relations Act (NRLA). While unionizing produced admirable results, the common methods of achieving these results – such as picketing and going on strike – seem to have further compromised the teaching profession in the eyes of the public, who often viewed these acts as self-interested and “blue collar.” Instead of realizing the overall benefit to schools and students that resulted from the formation of these teachers’ unions, society seemed to recoil at the prospect of mostly women making demands that appeared selfish. (It seems to me that women are still not allowed to be selfish.) While I will not go into depth here about the complicated position of teachers’ unions in the U.S. today, it’s worth noting that popular rhetoric continues to vilify teachers’ unions and by extension, teachers.

Moreover, because everyone was a student, and spent countless hours in schools observing teachers in action, many think anyone can teach. This goes along with the saying “those who can’t do, teach!” which implies that teaching is easier than most other professions. This is of course a glaring fallacy; and upon stepping on the other side of the curtain, new teachers quickly learn how incredibly hard it is to become a mediocre teacher, let alone an effective one! But the perception of teaching as a job anyone can do is consistent with what it pays – a meager salary when compared to other equivalent professions (like psychology and law); as a result, some teachers must become Uber drivers on the side just to make ends meet.

The status of teaching is not helped by the fact that teacher education – the manner in which teachers should be prepared for this incredibly challenging profession – consists of a similar “non-system.” Preparation for teachers developed along with schools, without much rhyme or reason. And until recently, the nearly 2000 different teacher preparation programs in this country faced little to no regulation or oversight. While aspiring teachers pay a great deal to attend these programs – an expense they will not soon recoup on a teacher’s salary – there is still really no guarantee that they will learn all they need to teach effectively. Meanwhile, a number of “alternative routes” like Teach for America continue to place teachers in the classroom with very little training at all. This further perpetuates the idea that teachers don’t need training. While the preparation of doctors and lawyers is viewed as rigorous, stretching over multiples years and culminating with high stakes performance exams, teacher training has existed without the public demand for such common structures. In fact, most other skilled professions – including cosmetology, plumbing, the clergy – requires more training than teaching. Shouldn’t the individuals who spend so much time with our precious children, essentially helping to shape the future of this nation, be better prepared for this endeavor? I will discuss this more in future blogs. But the point I want to make here is that the devaluation of teaching as a profession feeds the devaluation of teacher education, which in turn perpetuates the myth that teachers don’t need training and reinforces the low social status of the profession as a whole.

While a number of factors have influenced the public’s disparaging opinion of teaching as a profession in the United States, it is time to face this unfortunate history in order to address our misperceptions. While teachers still face many undesirable realities in today’s schools – including crowded classrooms, standardized testing, long hours, and low pay (which all continue to impact the low-status of the profession) – it is time to realize how very important, challenging, and truly admirable teaching is. And it’s time to change how we select, prepare, support, reward, and regard teachers. Our future depends on it.

*I am admittedly not a historian of education. Nonetheless, I have spent a great time studying teaching at HGSE and have learned a lot about the history of teaching in the process. Some of the resources that have informed my knowledge and beliefs on this topic include:

  • Dan Lortie’s Schoolteacher
  • Pat Graham’s Schooling America
  • Raymond Callahan’s Education & The Cult of Efficiency
  • The work of David Cohen and his course on Democracy in Education
  • Various articles by Susan Moore Johnson and her courses on Teacher Quality & Teachers’ Unions