A decade ago, I left elementary-school teaching to become an assistant professor of education. Ten years, tenure, and two universities later, I am back in a public-school classroom--by choice, full time, on a one-year unpaid leave of absence from my university.
No more noontime racquetball matches on courts reserved for the faculty, no more Tuesday-evening classes (I taught only on Tuesdays), no more Friday-morning meetings to review yet another Holmes Group proposal for improving teacher education (our college is a charter member of Holmes, you know).
Instead, I do lunch count. I monitor recess (outdoors and inside). I teach children math. I listen as my name is called--"Mr. Delisle! Mr.Delisle!’'--at least 300 times each day. I write notes to parents and I read the notes they write back about their children, my students.
Each day I am in the classroom--it’s been six months now--I regret having waited so long to return to it. At my university, I did find fulfillment from the graduate students I taught--but that was just Tuesday. It was the other 80 percent of my workweek that left me professionally empty.
Sure, there were grants to write, articles to author, and committees to chair. But these activities seemed rather peripheral, one step removed from the everyday practice of teaching. Besides, I found an inverse relationship between my length of time apart from children and the meaningfulness of the messages I sent through writing: The longer I was removed from full-time classroom teaching, the less I had to offer to my colleagues in the classroom.
Also, there was another trend that surfaced throughout my decade at the university that disturbed me. It began ever so slowly in the free-spending 80’s, and is now coming to a head in the belt-tightening 90’s. The trend is this: I came to realize that being a respected professor of education has very little to do with whether or not one can teach effectively. What matters more is one’s ability to secure external funding from government agencies or private foundations. In fact, colleagues who are especially adept at grant writing often find themselves not teaching at all--their time “bought out’’ for yet more grant writing. Who would’ve guessed that a Ph.D. in accounting, not education, would have been my best preparation for the realities of a faculty position in a college of education!
This must sound like just so many sour grapes from a disgruntled, nonprolific, misplaced former professor. It isn’t; in fact, I have little to be sour about. I have earned tenure, promotion, annual merit pay, and that most esteemed barometer of “having arrived,’' an office with an outside window. In fact, until recently, I was as rah-rah as anyone could be about life in higher education. But then I began to notice a disproportionate amount of time being focused on scholarship at the expense of students. It’s not that the two cannot coexist, it’s just that the university rewards only those who do both. Gone is the time when an excellent professor and student-teacher supervisor received the benefits of tenure and promotion. In the dog-eat-dog “culture’’ of higher education, a two-page article in some obscure journal ranks higher than a semester full of excellent teaching evaluations. Go figure.
So ... it was time for me to leave, to see if the grass was, indeed, as green as I remembered it to be in the schoolyard next door. And now that I’ve found that it is, what am I supposed to do about it? I love my 4th-grade job, and barring a snow day, I’ll return to it tomorrow and right through to June 12. Should I choose to remain where I am, learning daily from the children and my colleagues, I will gain a sense of professional fulfillment that is unique to grade-school teaching. But if I were to return to my university position (assuming I don’t get fired once this appears in print), I would do so with a freshness that would invigorate my lectures, my writing, and my overall effectiveness with my students. Also, I’d be able to get back into noontime racquetball.
Whatever my decision, it must be made soon, and the only facet of making a choice that I appreciate is knowing that countless others have already faced such decisions. A Canadian colleague, on hearing of my inner plight, made the following observations:
“When I have felt strongly the need to recreate my life, I’ve always gone with the feeling and have never regretted it. You need to invent your life over and over in the image of your highest self, and believe you deserve it. Otherwise, your life will be taken out of your hands and you’ll wake up at 50 or 60 and realize with great pain that it’s ebbing away and you haven’t done what you wanted to.’'
Perhaps this is nothing more than a personal midlife crisis as I try to determine what I really want to be when I grow up. After all, I’m lucky either way: At least I have a job, no matter which choice I make. But something inside tells me it’s not just me, it’s not just my university, and it’s not just colleges of education that are struggling to figure out what their missions really are. Rather, I believe it is all of higher education trying to serve too many masters, and in doing so, losing sight of its only true mission: the education of our next generation.
If higher education and the people who work in it are to reach the greatness to which they aspire, they must do something more than join the Holmes Group and gain NCATE accreditation. They must rediscover the beauty and the benefits of teaching, and reward those who do it well.
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A version of this article appeared in the March 25, 1992 edition of Education Week as An Ed School Is No Place for a Teacher