Next week I start my 40th year of teaching. I’ve spent my career teaching in high poverty public middle and high schools in the rural South, yet teachers all across America, in the suburbs and big cities, share many of the experiences and challenges I know well.
In some ways, teaching hasn’t changed much since I started all those years ago. Teaching is still a relatively low-paying profession staffed predominantly by women. Schools are not factories or businesses that thrive on standardization or competition but communities that work best with cooperation and collegiality. Teachers are not robots but caring professionals who know their content and work to make it accessible and interesting to all sorts of students. Children are not cogs whose highest goal is to score well on a test, but individuals who have their own goals and dreams.
Yet in other ways, teaching has changed a great deal. Education used to be lauded as a cornerstone of democracy, an integral part of the common good. It was a social responsibility, a commitment to making sure that the next generation grew up smart and strong and willing to shoulder the shared burdens of citizenship.
Now market forces drive the narrative about education. Instead of seeing schools as an investment in the community, private investors leech money from public schools to enrich themselves through for-profit charters and private schools. In some districts, vouchers for private school tuition have hollowed out public school budgets and forced difficult choices about cutting essential programs. And without the same accountability or oversight as public schools, too many for-profit charters have a history of mismanagement and financial scandal.
Instead of working to make teaching more attractive, states have cut benefits while salaries stagnate relative to other professions. Teachers are demonized – and demoralized – by education reformers who ignore or dismiss the overwhelming evidence that socio-economic well-being is, by far, the biggest predictor of student academic success.
Teachers today are micromanaged and “assessed” with invalid metrics that require tremendous amounts of useless data-tracking and paperwork. They spend their own money to buy supplies and give up their weekends to grade papers and make out lesson plans. They join a profession where opportunities for authentic collaboration with peers is all too rare, where further education and professional development is expensive.
If I were starting out my career today, I’m not sure I would become a teacher.
That idea makes me profoundly sad.
Because I would miss all the things that have made my 40-year career incomparable, life-altering, wise.
I still think teenagers are the best people in the world – not despite their unbridled enthusiasms and limit-testing tendencies but because of them. Nothing is as rewarding as watching a young person learn to think critically, to listen carefully, to respond thoughtfully. What a gift to see an indifferent reader turn into a lover of books and conversation about them. What a thrill to recognize the power of story – in literature and in our lives – and to watch my students find out that truth for themselves.
I can’t imagine not having all those joys – even as I worry that young people will choose not to take up teaching as a profession.
That’s what I’ll be thinking about next week when I turn on the light of my classroom, write the lesson plan for the day on the board, and wait for my new students to arrive.
McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.