A colleague of mine at the high school where I teach died a few weeks ago.
These are the kinds of reactions the students had to this loss: "He was our reason for coming to school." "This man was like a second father to me." "Here was a teacher who changed my life."
There were literally hundreds of comments like this. Could a CEO, a computer programmer or a stockbroker elicit this kind of adoration? Maybe so, but a teacher is in a unique position to exert a profound influence on countless young people at a critical time in their lives. My friend's death was a stunning reminder of the power a teacher can have.
With the potential for this much influence, teaching should be one job that attracts bright, dynamic people. I always ask my best students how many of them plan to become teachers. A decent number of hands always go up. Maybe not as many as in years past, but enough to feel assured that the profession is secure. This year, though, for the first time not one hand went up.
Perhaps I should have seen this coming, but I didn't. The students I asked are kids who basically respect teachers and get along with them. They recognize good instruction and they take full advantage of it. They credit their teachers with inspiring them, turning them on to specific fields of knowledge, and getting them into good colleges.
But none of them want to do the same for another generation of kids.
Before we write them off as selfish ingrates, it's eye-opening to hear their reasoning.
First of all, they don't see the profession as a logical conclusion to a university education. Getting into a good college is tougher and more expensive than ever. The results of all this, they feel, should reflect all that effort: a dazzling job with prestige and status.
Teaching doesn't cut it when it comes to these qualities.
How can that be, I asked them. Shouldn't such an important job deserve both status and prestige? Yes, almost every student admits, but society has decided otherwise. They gently pointed out that status is determined by how much the job or profession is valued. Or in other words, what it pays.
It's not the money alone that matters, they assure me. It's the prestige that money implies.
Second, students have been front-row spectators to what has happened to so many of our schools. Over the years, these same kids have been squeezed into larger and larger classes with more unruly peers. They have experienced more roof leaks, torn textbooks and dirty bathrooms. They have watched budget cutbacks make the counselors and school nurses disappear. They have seen more money go for security and less money go to the arts.
Third, no one is encouraging today's young people to become teachers. Not their parents, not their friends and, most disturbing, not even their teachers.
Many of my students have relatives or friends who are teachers and school administrators. None of them, apparently, wants a child to follow in his or her footsteps.
Once again, it is easy to criticize until we examine the reasons for this reluctance. Although most of these adults went into education with high hopes, they found the profession no longer offers the same kind of fulfillment it once did. Just like the students, they have seen their work environment deteriorate, their class sizes grow to absurd levels, and their clientele become increasingly unmotivated. Furthermore, they have watched old college buddies in other careers--with no better grades and no more training--pass them by professionally.
No wonder so many up-and-coming kids are now told that there are options out there far better than teaching. When one girl in my class confided to her elementary school teacher that her dream was to teach some day, the teacher responded, "No, no, you're far too smart to settle for that!"
My student teacher admitted that her family was disappointed she had decided to become "just a teacher." A recent graduate considered becoming a high school social studies instructor after he left Harvard, but his father soon set him straight: "I didn't send you to an Ivy League college to become a teacher!"
My students tell me I shouldn't worry about how many of them are going into education. As long as they're doing something useful, be it medicine, law or business, it doesn't really matter.
I disagree. They clearly are not considering the next generation. My current student, Christopher, has an outstanding calculus teacher, but will Christopher Jr.? The girl who sits next to him, Sarah, loves her physiology class, but won't Sarah's daughter deserve a great science opportunity, too? Hoang is learning to embrace Shakespeare, but his future children will want that thrilling literary door opened as well. If some of this current crop of bright, capable students don't choose a career in education, who is going to teach their children?
Will the next crop of students have a teacher who is smart, passionate, and inspirational? Or will they face a mediocre crop of instructors? It is vital that this profoundly important profession offers the working conditions, the respect, and the pay to attract the kind of people we want to teach our children.
And why not have a Harvard grad teaching 11th-grade U.S. history?