The More I Know: Should I Recommend a Career in Education for My Students?

This year marks the 25th year of NBC’s The More You Know campaign of public service announcements on topics ranging from alcoholism to turning the lights off to save energy. In the course of reading this interesting article about the series, I came across an early TMYK ad from Bill Cosby, in which he suggested that young people consider a career in education. I’ll let Dr. Huxtable speak for himself:

He’s not wrong: teaching does provide the opportunity to teach essential skills, critical thinking, and even self-respect. As a teacher entering his fifteenth year in the profession, though, I find myself wondering if it’s a career that affords its practicioners much opportunity to respect themselves, given the barrage of criticism leveled at them from every corner of American society.

A lot of the attacks are well-documented: conservatives who see destroying public faith in public schools as the best avenue to turn them into private enterprise opportunities, politicians who think demonizing teachers is more cost-effective than fighting poverty and giving all of our kids a chance to succeed, and self-serving corporate education “experts” who turn brief, fraudulent stints in schools into lucrative careers built on destroying those who actually stayed in the classroom have all taken a toll on faith in our schools, often turning the discourse demoralizing and even hostile towards our nation’s teachers.

And that drumbeat of criticism has taken a toll. In a survey of American workers, teachers were second only to physicians in self-reported stress and “and when asked, “Does your supervisor always create an environment that is trusting and open, or not?” teachers answered “yes” less frequently than respondents in any other profession.”  Teachers are feeling less satisfied, less respected, and less able to do their jobs.

But the coup de grâce may come from within schools themselves. Eager to prove that education is a data-driven industry rather than a human vocation, many districts are embracing one-size fits all approaches to education that transform the art of teaching into factory work, designed generate identical widgets that can be measured, not only to see the student results, but to test the teacher’s “fidelity” to the curricular approaches adopted by the district. According to the proponents of these solutions, teachers can no longer be trusted to develop their own assessments tailored to the needs of their students, but must develop “common formative assessments” that will allow district administrators to “monitor masterty of indicators.”

These advocates move books by telling districts that elements like teacher experience don’t even matter anymore. In their book Every School, Every Team, Every Classroom, Robert Eaker and Janel Keating make the laughable claim that teaching is so easy, so unlike any other profession in the world, that novices can teach as effectively as seasoned veterans if they just have collaboration in place. They write:

Time and again we have seen new teachers who at the end of their first year perform on par with their veteran colleagues because they enjoyed the support of a collaborative team.

That any administrator, someone who presumably spent some time in a classroom, could so absurdly dismiss the value of expertise and experience in education is incredibly telling. Teaching, in this view, isn’t a challenging skill to be honed, but a set of worksheets and common tests to be passed around the school and delivered by anyone.

It’s hard enough to endure the criticism from outside the profession, but when teachers are told that their experience doesn’t count, that they lack the professional judgment to assess their students, and that they should spend time that could be spent teaching or in collaborative conversation filling out worksheets documenting how they spent a meeting, it’s hard to feel a lot of that self-respect that Dr. Cosby said teachers can help transmit—and I have a hunch that someone who is told not to respect herself for her work might just struggle to teacher her students to respect themselves.

I can’t imagine another profession for myself. I love the time in the classroom and even those endless Sundays marking papers, because I know what I’m doing matters. Teaching is undoubtedly the right choice for me, but should I encourage my students to pursue a field that seems to be inflicting mortal wounds on itself? I’d love to tell my brightest and most compassionate students they should take less pay than other professions will offer them and face the slings and arrows of bloviating commenters vilifying them, but to challenge them to enter a profession that doesn’t even seem to believe in treating its professionals with basic respect for their competence may be too much to ask of me—and almost certainly of them.