What if your child says, ‘I want to be a teacher’?
We admire and respect teachers. We appreciate teachers. We value what teachers do for all of us, especially for our children and adolescents.
But we certainly don’t want our children to become teachers. Doctors, lawyers, engineers, yes. And if someone we know wants to change professions to become a teacher, what do we say? Teach, no way.
Why not? Because teaching is perceived as a low-paying profession? While that’s certainly an issue — despite several recent improvements — it seems to go deeper. Perhaps there’s a connection with the constant media drumbeat of crisis in education. One can hardly escape the sense that education is a problem profession, and who wants their son or daughter to be part of a problem?
Along the same vein, many see teaching as an almost Peace Corps-like noble sacrifice. We admire people who make sacrifices for a worthy cause, but we sure don’t want to see our own children making sacrifices.
It’s a problem. Why? Because there are many young people who are attracted to the teaching profession. The entire nation — California especially — desperately needs those young people to become teachers. But when they express that aspiration, not just to parents but to others who influence their lives — friends, employers, coaches, church leaders — all too often the response is “why would you do that?” Why not do something that makes more money? Why not do something more exciting, glorious, lucrative? In short, society discourages people from going into the teaching profession, and so many don’t, or at least not enough of them.
How many is enough? Over the next 10 years, California will need an additional 195,000 K-12 teachers. And if we don’t meet that need, we could be facing a digression back to larger classroom sizes and a weaker educational environment for our students at a time when the importance of a good education is invaluable. Do we really want to take several steps backward after we have taken so many steps forward?
California’s demographic diversity adds an additional complexity to the teacher recruitment equation. A large percentage of the young teachers currently entering the profession are products of affluent suburbia — predominantly white. They want to teach in the type of schools they attended and grew up in — suburban, well-funded, comfortable and safe.
While the state has provided incentives to teach in poorer urban districts, too often young teachers burn out after a year or two, some leaving the profession entirely. And although a good teacher is a good teacher regardless of race, there is a tremendous need for teachers who are the same ethnicity as their students, who come from and understand the communities their schools serve, who reflect the rich diversity in our state. Members of many ethnic communities argue that the lack of teacher diversity is a significant barrier to student success.
We desperately need young people from ethnic communities to become teachers, and to provide the tremendous service to their communities that a good teacher can offer. But once again, are those young people receiving encouragement, or are they being discouraged by the attitudes of the influential people in their lives? In many ethnic communities what counts is what the community thinks, especially its leaders.
While the state as a whole can encourage, as we have certainly tried hard to do at CalTeach, only a community can decide for itself what is important and act accordingly.
And of course there are many priorities, many problems, which community leaders must deal with in our complex society. Getting more young people into college is quite a challenge in its own right. Gangs, drugs, teen pregnancy and the like are all serious, immediate challenges that demand attention. And yet ultimately a strong educational system is a part of the solution to so many societal ills.
I would encourage all of us — especially our community leader — to think long, hard and seriously about their attitudes about teaching. It is fine to value teachers, to appreciate them, to support them in their important jobs.
But we cannot honor our teachers and at the same time discourage our young people from seeking a teaching career.
We desperately need teachers, many of them, and we need them to uphold the high quality standards our students deserve.
What will you say the next time a person expresses an interest in teaching? For all of our sakes, give them the encouragement they need, and hope for the future that the teaching profession so richly deserves.
— Column writer Nancy S. Brownell is executive director at CalTeach. She may be reached at email@example.com or (916) 278-4600.
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