At a dinner party a gray-haired man whom I have not met before asks me what I do. I tell him I am an English teacher. He looks at me quizzically, and starts talking about his latest legal case. In the high school where I work, teachers who have been at the school for many years find out I have a doctorate and have taught college. They, too, look at me quizzically. They say, “Aren’t you overqualified for this job?”
This is not the kind of treatment I am used to in either social or collegial situations. When I worked for two major universities running urban-internship programs, people at dinner parties were always interested in my work. At these same universities, liberal-arts faculty members accused me of being underqualified because I had a doctorate in education which, they insisted, focused on practice rather than research.
For a while I wandered through both university and school wondering what was wrong with me. The fact is that what is “wrong” is that in both of my work situations, in both the university and the high school, I have considered teaching adolescents--grappling with them each day in the classroom--a noble profession. What I have learned is that neither the university professor, nor the public-at-large considers it as such. As a result, I can now understand why high-school teachers themselves often have a hard time believing it.
At the two research universities where I spent 10 years of my professional life, I spent many hours trying to convince tenure-track faculty and deans that students needed small classes and regular contact with faculty members who were interested in their lives. This is certainly not a new idea. All the reports on “What’s Wrong with Higher Education” point to these solutions. All the deans I spoke to agreed with me. The problem was that the reward system of the university--tenure-placed no rewards on good teaching. Faculty were rewarded for their research and publications. In fact, at both universities, young faculty members who won distinguished-teaching awards very often were not awarded tenure.
I, who was not on a tenure line because I was in interdisciplinary programs in universities structured by disciplines, and because my doctorate was in education, which was not defined as a discipline in the colleges in which I was located, was allowed the luxury to act on my belief in good teaching.
I left the university because I was tired of administrative battles I could not win. I assumed that, in a high school, I would find more people who valued teaching students.
In some ways I was right. I am fortunate enough to be in a high school where the principal considers himself an educational leader and acts that way. He has been supportive of my struggles with the kids, and my efforts at innovation. He respects my learned knowledge base, as well as my intuition. I have also found a group of teachers who have not tired of their dally exchanges with adolescents, who thrive on the challenge, and who are still learners themselves. They are unfailingly supportive of my work. They are also my role models and guides.
Unfortunately, there are also many teachers with good intentions who are tired. They want to be effective with their kids, but find their creative energy sapped by forces often beyond their control. They see themselves as powerless, unable to reach the very students they want to serve, who are less enthusiastic about learning than “students used to be.” They are besieged by new curriculum regulations and innovations from the state and the school district that may seem contradictory. And they are faced with school board members and parents who cut instructional materials from budgets, and who tell them they have too many benefits. They can’t figure out why anyone who has had another career would want to enter theirs.
Even some of my students agree. Several of them have asked me, “Wouldn’t you rather be back teaching college?” My answer, after teaching high-school English for two years, is still, on balance, “No!”
I have learned that teaching high-school English is a very hard job, much harder than any other job I have held. It is a job that means being intellectually acute, not only in the area of English, but also in the areas of adolescent development and psychology. I never know what mood my students will be in when they walk in the door. I have to be ready to deal with uncertainty at almost hourly intervals, when classes change, every day of the school year. My job is also physically demanding. Full-time teachers at my high school start work before 7:45 in the morning. They cannot sit down with a cup of coffee to go over the papers for that day and slowly wake up. They must be “on,” smiling at sleepy, and often grumpy adolescents, trying to engage them in some kind of learning.
Although the day nominally ends a little before 3 P.M., there are almost always papers to be taken home and graded. There are extracurricular activities to be supervised. There are lesson plans to be done. And there are parents to be called when students’ work is lacking.
I love the complicated nature of this work, which helps keep me curious and alive. At the same time it is draining, it can, and does, feed me.
I should be able to hold my head up at dinner parties, and to the world-at-large, to tell people what important work I do. I want, and need, to work with people who continually view their work as challenging, renewing, and important, and who have this view supported by their communities. I know that teaching once had that status, and could have it again. In my parents’ generation many intellectuals became teachers and stayed with it. They were respected and admired for their work.
Perhaps more than anything, I want to send out an ad to newspapers and TV to recruit new teachers, the way the U.S. Army did. It says: “Be all that you can be. Find your future--as a teacher.” I have a feeling it will be an uphill, but noble, battle.
A version of this article appeared in the October 16, 1991 edition of Education Week as Teaching Is Still a Noble Profession