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Love of Learning Isn't Enough

An educator warns her daughter about teaching

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Earlier this year, Pearl R. Kane, an assistant professor of education at Columbia University's Teachers College, received a letter from her daughter Lisa asking for advice on whether to become a teacher. Kane shares her thoughts in the following open letter to her daughter, a senior at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Me.

Dear Lisa,

I'm both pleased and distressed that you're thinking of going into high school teaching. Since I've spent my career involved in schooling, I'm flattered by your interest; on the other hand, I'm concerned. Teaching has some serious drawbacks, which I hope you'll think about before you decide to make it your career.

I'm afraid you'll be disappointed because teaching offers very few opportunities for leadership. The sad fact is that, as an actively involved college student, you have wielded more influence with administrators and participated in more significant decisionmaking than you would as a teacher in a high school. At college, you allocate budgets for various clubs because you serve on the Finance Committee. As a member of the Student Life Committee, you decide which speakers to invite to campus. As the student representative on the search committee for a new associate dean, you had the chance to review applications. You even were asked to assess the teaching effectiveness of candidates for professor.

Unfortunately, Lisa, most teachers have none of these powers. Are you ready to give them up? If you choose to teach, you'll find that decisions about the topics you teach, the objectives you must accomplish, and the textbooks you use are made outside the school. In many districts, budgets are set by a central office, so you probably won't have any influence on the financial decisions that have direct impact on your teaching. In most schools, you won't have a role in selecting your colleagues or the administrators who manage the educational enterprise. Even decisions about the small amount of inservice education that is offered are often made without consulting the teachers who participate.

You should also be aware that a major reason you cite for going into teaching, your own love of learning, might be stifled as a teacher. The job offers very few built-in opportunities to increase your knowledge of the subject you teach or to improve the way you teach. Basically, you will find yourself working only with your students, with no time to interact with peers or reflect on what you are doing. Most schools will not even give you time to learn by observing other teachers in their classrooms. Given the working conditions in most schools, it's not surprising that many people who enter teaching become dissatisfied. More than 40 percent of all teachers leave the profession within the first five years.

Things could be different. Management practices in private industry, for example, have dramatically changed in the last decade. Successful Japanese business techniques that involve people at all levels of an organization in decisions have been introduced. Recent studies of adult learning and motivation show that greater employee involvement in decisionmaking leads to better outcomes and increased job satisfaction. But only recently, in the face of deteriorating public school systems, have such concepts been introduced in the schools. A new idea called teacher empowerment is slowly giving teachers a larger role.

At the school-building level, empowerment means freeing teachers from bureaucratic dictums and giving them greater latitude to do what they know is right in the classroom. It would give teachers more control over curriculum and textbook selection and increase their involvement in school-level decisionmaking and in selecting and evaluating peers. Empowerment does not imply that everyone on the teaching staff does the same thing. Ideally, empowerment would maximize the talents and interests of individual teachers in a way that serves the needs of the school.

If you could get a job teaching in Charlotte-Mecklenberg, N.C.; Dade County, Fla.; or Rochester, N.Y., you would have the chance to join serious experiments in teacher empowerment. Through negotiations between unions and school boards, teachers have been given control over management functions that had been the exclusive province of administrators. Management committees or school-improvement teams work on policy and planning and sometimes have responsibility for inservice education, mentoring new teachers, and teacher evaluation. But those school districts are still the exceptions; you won't find many such opportunities in most cities. Teacher empowerment is still discussed more than it is implemented.

Lisa, teacher empowerment gives me hope for the future of teaching, but the present you would confront is not as attractive. I know you would enjoy the intrinsic rewards of classroom teaching, those special moments when you help a student master something he or she couldn't do before, when you give someone courage to succeed, or, more important, when you help someone be a better human being. Shaping the minds and hearts of other people is no small undertaking, and it is the challenge that keeps most of us in the field. But I doubt that you would stay in teaching long-term. Studies show that the most highly qualified and capable teachers are the most likely to leave.

You have a difficult choice to make. Most of your promising peers are being recruited for high-status, lucrative careers in fields where they can exercise leadership and make a difference. If you think you would find sufficient satisfaction using your intelligence and warmth to affect the growth of a few individual students, then teach. But if you also seek the opportunity for broader impact on the community and want to use your leadership skills where they will be welcomed, encouraged, and rewarded, then I reluctantly suggest you consider another profession. I want you to know that the personal fulfillment of teaching is often overshadowed by its frustrations. And although teacher empowerment offers hope for the future, it must overcome both generations of institutional habit and the resistance of entrenched powers-that-be for that hope to be realized. If you enter a career in teaching, you need to know the choice you are making.

Love, Mom

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