A few weeks ago, I sat in a diner with some colleagues discussing what we say when our students tell us they are considering going into teaching. With differing levels of reluctance or passion, the consensus at the table could be roughly summarized this way:
We’d all begun our careers as young teachers do, eager to change the world and a bit naïve about the way the world would push back. Now, some of us ten years in and some 30, we’ve grown into the profession, simultaneously upping our game and learning our limits. But over the last few years, we’ve felt the full effects of the efforts of “reformers” (e.g. privatizers, union-busters, political hacks, or well-meaning theorists who have no idea what it’s like to teach in a real classroom). We’ve done our best to protect our students when the s--- rolls downhill, from the Feds bowing to their corporate donors, to the states begging for adequate funds from the Feds, to the local school district trying to keep up with new mandates from the state, to the building administrators trying to hit the targets from the district. It has rolled onto us, and we’ve done our best to catch it, but sometimes it slides down and splatters onto the kids in the form of testing we can’t prevent, curriculum that chases possible test questions, and standards made by people who don’t teach children. And when we get home, we hop on our Facebook pages to see that some oblivious friend is promoting a clip from Fox News where a millionaire talking head complains that teachers make too much money and don’t work long enough hours.
The job has become more difficult at the same time that the support from the public has decreased. We’re like members of Congress in that people like their kid’s teacher but dislike teachers as a whole (when we get together in groups we’re called a “teacher union” and people seem to think that’s something other than a bunch of teachers), but we’re unlike members of Congress in that we keep doing our jobs and putting our constituents before our party interests. Know what it would look like if we put the needs of teachers before the needs of students the way our politicians put their party interests before their country? A strike. Every single day of the year. Because no one would put up with this if they didn’t care about kids.
And yet, in my classroom, I still love my job. I get to work with wonderful, smart, funny, young people who keep me on my toes and who grow up right before my eyes, each at their own paces and into unique and impressive young adults. They defy every attempt to standardize them into easily quantified, normed data points, and I love them for it.
So why are teachers now discouraging students from going into a profession that still makes us happy? Because the parts of the job we love the best, the last bits we’ve held onto, are now under threat, and there’s a good chance that they might go away before our current students would graduate from masters programs. In my classroom, I still get to do some things that are different from every other teacher in my building, and that individuation shows my students that I care about them and I’m not just marching in lockstep to a curriculum designed by someone they’ve never met, a curriculum sold as a means to produce higher test scores rather than better people. That day, the day of the uniform daily corporate curriculum, is not yet upon us, but we worry, and we want to protect our kids from becoming teach-o-bots.
In the midst of this pervasive worry about the decline of my favorite profession, I received a note from a former student. She wrote, “I wanted to say thank you! A couple years ago, while in your class, I said the word ‘gay’ to refer to how I felt about something, and you said I had to write a paper explaining why that was wrong. Well of course I used the religion excuse; I was so ridiculously stupid. After a few years of knowledge-based wisdom, I realize how dumb that was! Everyone is equal, and I am disgusted with myself for thinking I was better than anyone else, or that religion would possibly be an excuse for bigotry. There is NO excuse for discrimination based on any difference. Thank you for forcing me to write that paper. I deserved that and much more! Keep teaching students to treat humans as humans!”
I assured her that I don’t think less of her for coming to that realization. Instead, I’m more proud than ever that she managed to reject the bigotry she’d absorbed from the culture around her. She has proven to be the kind of student teachers want to have in their classes, not the ones with all the answers who get the highest test scores and improve our end-of-year evaluations, but the kind who learn and keep on learning after they’ve graduated.
As for that paper I made her write, on the first day of class each year, I explain to my students that they may have whatever bigoted opinion they want, but they may not use racist/sexist/homophobic/bigoted/or-otherwise-hurtful language in my classroom because I have an obligation to make all my students feel safe. If they use that kind of hate speech (after a warning in which I explain why it’s unacceptable) I will make them write an explanation of why it is hurtful and doesn’t belong in a classroom before they can come in the next day. This strategy was never taught to me. It’s not in any of the new Common Core-aligned textbooks. But it’s given me an opportunity to teach students about language they often don’t even recognize as hurtful.
My colleagues have tons of these strategies that are unique to their classrooms and personalities. Over the course of our students’ educations, they learn different things from all of us. Many of those lessons are nowhere to be found in the state-adopted curriculum, and many of them are more important life lesson than anything a politician has considered mandating. Most of all, in our own ways, we teach students that we care about them, that they are each valued. There is no requirement that we teach that. In all my testing to get a teaching license, I was never asked if I cared. There is no law that says I have to. But teachers do.
Teaching is still worthwhile because we are still allowed to show our students we care about them and about the adults they will become. If the day comes when I am told that there is no time to teach anything other than what is on the state test, that the Pearson Corporation has already decided what kind of adults my students should become and I am only allowed to care about making sure my school district and state get their slice of the ever-dwindling pie, then I’ll be defeated. Until then, I’ll keep fighting for real teaching. And when my students ask me if they should become teachers, I’ll tell them, “It depends.”
“It depends on whether or not you’re willing to fight for real teaching. It will be an uphill battle. And you may not win.”
“But there will be victories along the way.”
And I hope, for the sake of our country, that some of them choose to join in the fight.