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'Too Smart To Teach'

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W hen I was 5 years old and in 1st grade (I'd skipped kindergarten), 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 in 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, boys don't become teachers, girls do.''

". . . 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 I am. 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 given to wannabe teachers today. But the people who now say "You're too smart to be a teacher'' are not well-intentioned, 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. It can't be the feeling that you're not making 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. 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 better we should do our jobs.

But even though I don't know all the causes of dissatisfaction, I do know this: In 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 you would assume to be most enthusiastic about what they do--educators themselves--are often our field's most vocal opponents. In the now-cliched words of Pogo, "We have met the enemy, and he is us.''

To be sure, educating today's youngsters 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 as the individuals they are, well knowing that the kids 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 of past generations, when the introduction of rock-and-roll, television, radio, and the backyard swimming hole all provided newfangled nirvanas for yesterday's students to explore. Though more complex and technological, today's distractions to academics still share some common ground: Each involves children who are active, friend-conscious, and more interested in having fun than in learning math facts. Times may change, and the kids of today may appear more sophisticated than their 1940s counterparts, but a deeper look reveals that which should be obvious: Today's students need caring and intelligent adults to teach them as much as they ever did.

I'm sure some readers will call me naive, believing that the bifocals I've just begun wearing were fitted with rose-colored lenses. They'll tell me that 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. They'll suggest that teaching should be just a steppingstone to something more meaningful--such as administration or personnel management.

In small but gnawing ways, such comments send two messages to prospective teachers. First, the further removed from children they become, the more important their job in education is. Second, becoming a career teacher is professionally stifling. Both messages are wrong. 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 here in the first place. Leave education until you once again believe that anything is possible in the life of a child--drugs, poverty, or emotional bankruptcy notwithstanding. If educators do not see their ability to make a meaningful difference for a student 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 pridefully.

These 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 also 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 Lee Iacocca, in praising the comeback of Chrysler, "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 profession.

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 is 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, 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 simple truth, could be the greatest impetus ever in our collective move to reform the profession.

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