I couldn’t be a teacher today, because…
I’m retired from public education, and though 25 of my 39 years were as a high school counselor, I do know teachers. In fact, I recently taught in community college. But if I were just now starting out, as I did in the spring of 1970 as a fresh-faced, excited 22-year-old, I don’t think I would last long. Here’s why…
The physical and emotional demands of teaching today are astounding. Teaching today commands nonstop student engagement, but it’s hard to get kids’ attention nowadays. After all, they’ve got phones, tablets, laptops and all kinds of electronic devices at their fingertips that command their attention 24/7. How can you compete with the Kardashians, YouTube, or the almighty messenger app? When I started teaching, the kids might daydream or pass a note to a friend, but for the most part, I could stand at the front of the room and command their attention. Now, secondary students can’t tear themselves away from their phones. Teaching is an exhausting battle that requires nonstop vigilance. To succeed, you must make yourself and your lessons more entertaining than the constant bombardment from electronic media that they are used to, or you will lose them. So many of them have the attention span of a gnat.
Teaching, as a profession, is no longer respected. To become and remain a teacher, one must obtain at least a bachelor’s degree, complete a teaching internship, and participate in hours upon hours of training in the latest techniques that make one a better teacher – just like someone in the corporate world. But, a teacher is a public servant, and increasingly these days, parents take the word “servant” quite literally, regarding the teacher as their pampered child’s personal servant, solely responsible for their child’s success – regardless of the child’s effort. When I started my career, I could be sure that a phone call to a parent regarding their child’s lack of effort or unacceptable behavior would produce immediate results. These days, many parents place the blame for their child’s missteps directly on the teacher. Likewise, because of their parents’ entitled attitudes, the kids are disrespectful and demanding as well. I was shocked when I began teaching college freshmen, after twenty years out of the classroom, that a group of my students who disliked my refusal to accept assignments late went straight to the dean’s office to complain. This same group held personal conversations during my lectures, texted nonstop on their cell phones, and only completed half their assignments. And this is community college. High school is worse.
Standardized testing has destroyed the joy of teaching. The STAAR test has squelched the creativity and initiative of educators throughout the state. Since all core subjects' curriculum is strictly test driven, and so many days are spent in benchmark testing, practice testing, retesting and first-time testing, students and teachers are beaten down, bored, and discouraged. Administrators are so focused on data and results, they can’t allow for deviation from the mandated curriculum and methods. There's no room for thinking outside the box. For example, when I was an English teacher back in the 70's, I was given the task of teaching my students Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. As an experiment, I had one of my classes choose to rewrite, act out, and film their version of the play in whatever time period they chose. They chose street gangs of the 50's, ala West Side Story, and spent weeks during and after school rewriting, building sets, memorizing lines, etc. Their imaginations and energy were astounding! I’ve heard from those same students through the years, who said that classroom experience was one of the most memorable in their education. I wouldn’t be allowed to take the same approach today. It would take too much time away from STAAR objectives.
The future for teachers today is on shaky ground. The Texas legislature no longer supports public education. In the 80’s, 68% of the state budget went to education. Now, the state contributes 38%, pushing the burden of funding to school districts; that’s why our property taxes are soaring . In 2011, the Texas legislature cut the budget for public education by $5.4 billion. I remember it well. Staff was cut, and class sizes were expanded. Facilities crumbled. We’ve never caught up. Now, though the state has expanded some funding, teachers are actually making less because health insurance premiums and deductibles have gone through the roof. The Texas Teacher Retirement System, once a promise of stability and security for career teachers, is also under fire. Who knows what the future will be for those who are entering the education sector now, especially since they can’t draw Social Security? Meanwhile, the state continues to throw money at Educational Testing Service to produce and administer the ridiculous STAAR test. I have to laugh sarcastically at people who criticize teachers for protesting; after all, they have “all that time off.” The truth is, teachers get paid for the days they work. That’s it. No paid vacation. Most teachers work in the summer to supplement their income, and many have part time jobs during the school year as well. In truth, public teachers should get combat pay these days, with students’ out-of-control behavior increasing at warp speed. When I was teaching, the thought that anyone would suggest that I walk into my classroom packing would have been preposterous.
That said, some of the best days of my life were those that I taught school. Nothing matches this: Seeing a kid’s eyes light up when he finally “gets it” or her reaction when she gets an “A” after working her butt off on a project. Or watching in pride as they cross the stage to collect their hard-won diploma. Or hearing from those who say you were their favorite teacher of all time or that you made a true difference in their life. The intrinsic rewards have been incalculable. I’ll never regret my choice. But when my grandkids go to college, I can’t honestly recommend the teaching profession, as I once did, as the career choice of a lifetime- for all the reasons listed above. Yet, if that’s what they choose, I will support them, and my heart will swell with pride. Because a good teacher is priceless. As Henry Adams said, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”
So, for those of my colleagues who stay the course – you have my eternal admiration and respect. Thank you.