When friends don’t let friends become teachers


In the last week, I’ve written a lot about teaching -- how fewer parents want their children to go into the profession and how more teachers are fleeing the classroom.

I asked University of Georgia professor and frequent AJC Get Schooled blog contributor Peter Smagorinsky to make sense of what is happening. He delivered a provocative essay that gives all of us a lot to discuss.

By Peter Smagorinsky

When I graduated college in 1974 with an English degree from Kenyon College, I had no idea of what I wanted to do. The times were different. Back then there was no college and career readiness beginning in kindergarten. Even college was not a job training experience. Getting educated was viewed as a valid end in itself, even if it didn’t always immediately position us for entry into a specific profession.

Like a lot of my classmates, I had to figure out what to do with myself upon graduation. My mother urged me to think about becoming a teacher. She had taught in a one-room schoolhouse in upstate New York after college, before becoming the first woman statistician hired by the Weather Bureau, and then exiting the workforce to raise five children. I imagine that her own teaching looked sort of like this. Well, maybe.

My mom always regarded teaching as a good and noble profession, one worthy of her oldest son’s career investment. I’m thankful that I followed her advice. I began by substitute teaching in Trenton, N.J., public schools, got credentialed to teach at the University of Chicago, and taught from 1976-1990 in Chicago-area public schools, completing my doctorate between 1983-1989. I then moved to the University of Oklahoma to begin work in teacher education, eventually settling at the University of Georgia in 1998 for the long haul. I’ve been teaching for most of my life, and my mother’s encouragement is what got me started.

My very first essay for Get Schooled came in response to something one of my sisters told me in 2010: that her oldest son was thinking of becoming a teacher, and she hoped he wouldn't. After several decades of working for the various Bell/Lucent/AT&T companies, she got certified to teach mathematics through the Rutgers M.A.T. program, in part to help her align her work schedule with the special needs of her other son. She taught for 14 years and was really good at it, earning her school's Teacher of the Year award before retiring recently.

But she didn’t want her son to follow in her footsteps because, even in what might be a seemingly enviable position, she recently said, “The level of non-teaching (and non-rewarding) demands on teachers have started to outweigh the time in the classroom (rewarding) demands. Computers were introduced to reduce workload initially, but they have overtaken the demands with entering lesson plans, grades, teacher observations, etc., etc. And then to top it all off, I feel that there used to be more respect for teachers as professionals.”

Little did I know that she was ahead of her time in taking this dim view of her profession and its future. As reported in Get Schooled recently, the majority of parents don't want their kids to go into teaching, including teachers themselves.

The salary is surely a problem, as the Get Schooled essay reports. But low teacher pay was around when my mother encouraged me to become a teacher, and I liked my job enough to endure the slings and arrows that come every teacher’s way. The pay wasn’t great, but it got me by. I was like a lot of people who go into teaching: I liked to pay the bills, but wasn’t greedy or materialistic enough to find the pay a deterrent. Like most of my colleagues, I got my rewards from other parts of the work, particularly my engagement with my disciplinary field, my care for and relationships with my students, and my investment in their future.

UGA professor Peter Smagorinsky

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What frustrates many teachers is having those relationships and that immersion in the discipline disrupted by people from outside their classrooms, and having their work misunderstood by the taxpaying public. This frustration has grown with every misguided effort to make schools accountable to test score results at the expense of all else, and with the ways in which budgets get cut to the bone and beyond every year. Organizing the teaching profession around something that most teachers and students view as irrelevant—multiple-choice tests severed from the curriculum and instruction—can make it a very difficult profession to want to enter or persist with.

Teachers I know also become exasperated with the way their classrooms take the blame for problems originating well outside the school. According to another recent Get Schooled essay, a report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce concludes that students "have been failed by an education system that perpetuates intergenerational inequality."

I do not see how schools are solely responsible for perpetuating intergenerational inequality. This problem is much bigger than schools and often follows from taxpayers’ refusal to raise their own taxes to support social programs designed to generate opportunities for advancement, and to support schools as places of learning and social progress. Yet, this poll suggests that people consider teachers to be responsible for a broad-based, persistent problem that has vexed society for millennia. Generational inequality was around long before Jesus entered the Temple and overturned the tables of the money-changers. But here we go again: Social problems are the fault of bad, bad teachers in bad, bad schools and their failures.

So, the pay stinks, the public assumes that societal problems are caused by schools and teachers, bureaucratic data maintenance has displaced teaching, and the means of measuring academic success have little to do with how people engage with academic disciplines. Money is being siphoned off to support private schools and charters that can control their enrollments and thus appear to be providing a superior education, including those that are blatant scams. Public schools are faulted for not keeping pace with technology, yet are so financially strapped that many cannot afford to run full academic years or even weeks, much less invest in technology hardware, software, infrastructure, and training.

And, according to the Get Schooled essay, "The PDK poll shows a decline in Americans who express trust and confidence in public school teachers." Because presumably this is all their fault. Commenters on these essays, as Maureen wrote in her essay celebrating teacher achievements, produce "the usual sniping in the comments about teachers abusing students and working only 10 months." Policeclergypoliticiansdoctors, and many others commit sexual assault just as often, but nobody is suggesting that their institutions are at fault or that the guilty parties represent the profession as a whole.

No wonder people, including teachers, don’t want their own kids to teach.