Sara Ziemnik is a veteran teacher at an Ohio high school and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History’s 2017 National History Teacher of the Year. Sara’s teaching emphasizes debate and discussion, while her work (via a Teaching American History grant) has included contributing content to a history app with Cleveland State University. Sara will discuss what she wishes she knew twenty years ago, what teachers tire of hearing, and what teachers need more of.
Back in my undergraduate days, I was in a business course with quite a few business majors. Economics didn’t come easily to me at all, and I really had to work for it. I remember a professor asking me what my major was, and when I told him it was Secondary Education for Social Studies, he shook his head. “A shame,” he lamented. “You’re too smart for teaching.”
It stuck with me, because there are so many underlying issues with that statement that, twenty years later, still apply.
“Too smart for teaching.” In some ways, that implies that teachers are not smart. Raise your hand if you have ever heard, “Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.”
(Yep. Me too.)
As a country, we need to decide that this outdated and honestly pretty offensive statement needs to be retired—for good. Do we really want to joke, or accept, that our teachers aren’t intelligent? Is that the bar we’ve set? I can assure you that in many states, teachers are required to continue their education with a master’s degree and/or copious amounts of content and methodology courses. Teachers never stop learning. Our culture needs to change to recognize that.
“You’d make so much more money in another profession.” That was the next statement I heard, and in many states, that is true. I thought about entering the legal profession, and I’m sure it would have been rewarding—both economically and professionally. But at my heart, I am a teacher through and through. This is what I was meant to do. I am very lucky that I work in a state with a strong support of public education and teachers.
However, watching what my colleagues in places like Arizona, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and West Virginia have had to do to make ends meet breaks my heart. Our culture, and our state and federal laws, must change so that the best of the best serve our children. If teachers need to take on a second (or third!) job to make ends meet, we will have a hard time attracting people to this profession. It’s not an easy job, so it’s reasonable to expect that teachers be paid accordingly.
So, what can we do now? How do we keep the best and brightest in our classrooms, and also attract the brightest students to enter this profession?
- Change the mindset that teaching is a backup plan. Honor this profession for what it is: the chance to help students shape their minds and reach their potential. Treat teachers with the respect they deserve.
- Fairly compensate teachers and commit to this as a democracy. Tax-supported public education is one of the great American experiments. For it to work effectively, we must attract strong teachers to the profession. Teachers shouldn’t have to worry about making ends meet or feel forced to choose a different profession solely based upon compensation. We will lose strong educators until this changes.
- Commit to supporting schools in a fair and equitable way. Our road to school equality is bumpy and unfinished in this nation, and it’s largely due to the inequitable way we have funded our American educational experiment. We should never accept this inequity as the status quo. Instead, we must constantly push for new, innovative ways to support every child in every community and attract the best and brightest teachers to work with them every single day.
Every single teacher in our classrooms should be smart. Our schools should be places where scholars lead our children every day to be inquisitive learners, and not one where they rush off to their second-shift job to make ends meet. That we, as a nation, would even think to accept anything less is, for lack of better words, really dumb.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.