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'Too Smart To Be a Teacher'

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When I was 5 years old and in the 1st grade, Sister Patricia Ann asked me to help her teach my 36 classmates their consonants. Later in the year, while we were learning to tell time, Sister asked me once again to help out. I could count to 60 by both ones and fives, a skill especially useful in that earlier era when clocks had hands and faces, not digital readouts.

At the end of 1st grade, I announced to my parents that I wanted to become a teacher. They didn't say much. I said the same thing again in 2nd grade, and 4th grade, and especially 8th grade (when Mr. Sheppard, my first guy teacher, was my hero). It was then, at my 8th-grade graduation party, that Uncle Ray took me aside to offer some of the advice he was so prone to give.

"Jim," he said, "you don't really want to be a teacher. There's no money in it." "Besides," he added, "boys don't become teachers, girls do."

This Commentary was selected for inclusion in The Last Word: The Best Commentary and Controversy in American Education, published in 2007. Get more information on the book from the publisher.

" ... But Uncle Ray, I had a man teacher this year!"

He just sighed, shook his head, and, laying his hand on my right shoulder, added his final comment. "Jim, you're too smart to be a teacher."

Today I am what Uncle Ray admonished me not to become—a teacher. Albeit a heavily credentialed one—B.S., M.Ed., Ph.D.—but a teacher nonetheless. Working in both a college of education and a suburban middle school, I attempted to do what Sister Patricia told me I could do so well: teach others without making them feel bad that I knew some things they didn't.

I enjoy my jobs immensely, as do most of my colleagues, which is why it bothers me so much that the same advice I received from Uncle Ray more than 30 years ago is still being given to wannabe teachers today. The difference is, the people who now most often say "You're too smart to be a teacher" are not well-intentioned but out-of-touch relatives, but rather, educators themselves, who want to take away from others the dream that they themselves had sought: to become a teacher.

Why is this? Why do so many individuals who work daily with young people discourage the most capable ones from entering the field of education? I can't imagine it's the low pay (except in South Dakota, salaries are pretty decent—and on the rise). It can't be the feeling that one cannot make a difference—every teacher has virtually dozens of stories of student success. And it can't be a lack of camaraderie—teachers' lounges are hotbeds of lives in motion.

Perhaps this aversion to recommending a career in education is due to a perception that educators aren't as respected as they once were, by either students or the public. Maybe it's because teachers' unions have become so powerful that the personal voice of one teacher is stifled by the din of the many, leaving individual accomplishments secondary in importance to collective bargaining. Or, maybe it's the restrictions placed upon the art of teaching by the too-numerous proficiency tests and reforms mandated by out-of-touch legislators and "experts" who dictate from afar how we should do our jobs.

Even though I don't know all the causes of dissatisfaction, I do know this: In both my university and in many K-12 schools, a career in education is considered the lowest of the low in terms of professions that matter. And the people one would assume to be most enthusiastic about what they do—educators themselves—are often the field's most vocal opponents. In the now-familiar words of Pogo, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

The same advice I received from Uncle Ray more than 30 years ago is still being given to wannabe teachers today.

To be sure, educating today's youths in our virtual-reality culture is a tough task. We compete with Big Bird (at least until the Contract With America makes him extinct) and Power Rangers. We vie for the attention of kids raised on Nintendo and Prodigy. We try to teach 30 students at a time as the individuals they are, knowing full well that those at the extremes, the very brightest and the educationally neediest, are somehow missing out on the full measure of what they need to succeed.

Yet these realities are little different from the interferences that plagued past generations, when the introduction of rock 'n' roll, radio, TV, even the backyard swimming hole all provided new nirvanas for students to explore. Though more complex in nature, today's distractions to academics still share some common ground: Each appeals to children who are active, friend-conscious, and more interested in having fun than in learning math facts. Times may change, and the kids may become more superficially sophisticated, but a deeper look reveals what should be obvious: Students need caring and intelligent adults to teach them as much as they ever did.

I'm sure some readers will find me naive, perhaps believing that those bifocals I've just begun wearing were fitted with rose-colored lenses. They may even tell me Uncle Ray was right—that a real professional would look for a higher-status job than classroom teaching; or that teaching at any level is a career relegated to those who choose to settle for something less than they are capable of doing (the "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach" syndrome). They'll suggest that teaching should be just a steppingstone to something more meaningful&mash;like administration or personnel management.

In small but gnawing ways, comments like these send two messages to prospective teachers: first, that the further removed from children they become, the more important their job in education is; and second, that becoming a career teacher is professionally stifling. Both messages are wrong, for to assert that teachers must remove themselves from the classroom to feel professionally fulfilled is akin to asking Whoopi Goldberg to direct "Oklahoma!" in order to round out her resume.

To the many naysayers in our profession, I kindly ask a favor: Resign or retire or retrain or do whatever it takes to reignite the idealism that brought you into the field.

To the many naysayers in our profession, I kindly ask a favor: Resign or retire or retrain or do whatever it takes to reignite the idealism that brought you into the field in the first place. Leave education until such time that you once again believe anything is possible in the life of a child&mash;drugs, poverty, or emotional bankruptcy notwithstanding. If educators do not see their ability to make a meaningful difference for a child who believes in the inevitability of his own defeat, they are taking up valuable space in front of a classroom—space that can and should be occupied by an optimist who takes the role of teacher seriously—and assumes it with pride.

And while they're at it, these same teachers who complain that education is not a worthwhile career should realize that by discouraging able young people from becoming teachers, they not only downplay dreams, but demean themselves and a noble profession. It's easy to bemoan one's lot in life, but guess what? No one is forcing teachers to remain as teachers against their will. In the words of former Chrysler Corporation Chairman Lee Iacocca, "You've got to lead, follow, or get out of the way." So if education is as bad as some teachers say it is, then those unhappy pessimists should stop frustrating themselves and exit the corps.

The longer I teach—it's been 18 years, now—the more firmly I believe that the finest teachers are born, not made. That all of the teacher education courses and national accreditation standards in the world can't create an educator out of someone who just doesn't wholeheartedly want to be working with children's minds, hopes, and dreams. I also believe that many prospective teachers knew when they were 6, just as I did in Sister Patricia's class, that teaching was the only job worth having. To those bright young people who want to enter the profession that has been so good to many of us—education—I say "good choice!" My advice to them is not "You're too smart to be a teacher," but rather, "You're too smart not to be one."

That single affirmation, if made by every educator alive who believes in its truth, could be the greatest impetus ever in our collective move to reform the profession.

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