October 6 2010
Remember Little House on the Prairie? The main character, Laura Ingalls, becomes a school teacher. In her time period, teaching was perhaps the most respected career a young, intelligent woman could have.
But today teaching is not the respected career it once was. Many young women (and men too!) analyze their own strengths and interests and say - as I have - "Wow, I love helping people learn!" But unfortunately, in our young lives, we've been discouraged from entering the education field if our grades or standardized test scores are too high.
I read an article from Mike O'Brian Monday in The Huffington Post about the urgency of education reform. He comments on how the film, "Waiting for Superman," has started a conversation that we must turn into action. Here's one piece of news he reports:
We have a generation of young people second guessing careers on Wall Street and an open question about where that talent goes (we don't have an answer yet, but 12 percent of all Ivy League graduates applied to Teach for America last year).
I'm a product of public schooling, and I've learned from some excellent teachers. But most of my very best teachers (with a few exceptions) were over age 50 when they taught me. They entered the field of teaching when public opinion of teaching was higher. I'm hoping that a lot of kids in today's classrooms will enjoy their young TFA teachers. But will those teachers stick around when the economy bounces back and other jobs become available?
Some might argue that the reason fewer highly qualified individuals enter the field of education today is because of the low compensation that teachers receive compared to doctors or lawyers. True, teachers are paid less, but medicine and law require additional degrees and don't get summers off. I think the real discouragement to teaching as a profession is the bad rap the field has.
There are many potential explanations for why people don't respect teachers like they did before. I think it's because there are too many bad teachers out there that, unfortunately, bring a bad stereotype to (specifically public school) teachers.
I once sat in on a math class with my younger sister, who had a different math teacher than I did in middle school. I watched in horror as her teacher asked the class to practice a Pythagorean Theorem problem in which the hypotenuse was shorter than one of the sides (mathematically impossible). No one in the class could find the answer, not even the teacher. I explained to my sister to stop trying; the assignment was a waste of time.
Other impossible math problems can be found in national statistics about the state of education in the U.S. today. How can our nation stay competitive when our high school graduation rate is less than 75 percent? How can we continue to fund public schools with a national debt of $13 trillion? And with state budgets going under too? And why is it that education spending keeps going up, while education quality doesn't?
We cannot stop trying to solve these problems, but we can approach them in a different way. At least part of the answer to my last question is in the quality of our teachers.
If we want more of our brightest young people to consider the field of teaching, and if we want to restore the deserved respect to the great teachers who are already out there - education reform must be a priority and bad teachers must be removed from the classroom. We should expect and encourage the smartest young people - like Laura Ingalls - to enter the field of education, not just for a brief stint during economically challenging times, but as a career. This will only happen if we allow schools to get rid of bad teachers. It doesn't matter if they are fired, or if new methods of professional development are introduced, but we cannot stand for a few bad apples to taint the reputation of the bunch.
Here's a great quote from the movie, "Waiting for Superman": "When you see a great teacher, you are seeing a work of art." Teachers old and new deserve to be part of a respected field, but this cannot happen if standards for teaching remain low. Keeping bad teachers around discourages newer, better ones, and it's not fair for the kids.