Teaching Profession

Don’t Become a Teacher, Advises Award-Winner Nancie Atwell

By Jordan Moeny — March 23, 2015 4 min read
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Editor’s note, June 25: Read Atwell’s recent letter to the Education Week editor, “Nancie Atwell on the Common-Core Debate and Her Advice to Aspiring Teachers.

Editor’s note, March 31: See an updated version of this story in the latest issue of Education Week, “Award-Winning Educator Decries Current Teaching Climate.”

An influential language arts teacher who recently won a $1 million international teaching prize has some surprising advice for young people considering joining the profession: Don’t.

On March 15, Nancie Atwell, who has been teaching reading and writing for 42 years and has written several prominent books on language arts instruction, was awarded the first annual $1 million Global Teacher Prize by the Varkey Foundation, based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The prize, which has been lauded by the likes of Bill Gates and Bill Clinton, who is the honorary chairman of the Varkey Foundation, aims to improve the public image of the teaching profession by highlighting the work of excellent educators.

Upon receiving the award, Atwell, who teaches at the Center for Teaching and Learning, a nonprofit demonstration school she helped found in Edgecomb, Maine, in 1990, said she was honored to represent her profession and that she felt “validated every day just by the experiences I have with children in the classroom.”

But she doesn’t seem keen on encouraging others to follow in her footsteps.

Following the award ceremony, Atwell appeared on CNN’s New Day to talk about the award and the state of education. When asked what she would tell a student considering a career in teaching, she said that she would discourage them unless they could find a job in a private school.

“Public school teachers are so constrained right now by the common core standards and the tests that are developed to monitor what teachers are doing with them,” she said. “If you’re a creative, smart young person, I don’t think this is the time to go into teaching unless an independent school would suit you.”

In an interview with HuffPost Live (starts at 18:30), Atwell reiterated her reservations about the Common Core State Standards, which Gates’ own foundation has played a central role in supporting. “The new common core curriculum and the tests that accompany it are tending to treat teachers as mere technicians,” she said. “They open the box and they read the script, and that’s not what good teaching is about. It’s an intellectual enterprise, and that’s been stripped from it by the current climate.”

The Maine educator also agreed with HuffPost Live host Marc Lamont Hill’s suggestion that the common core and the “hyper-testing, hyper-accountability climate” teachers face could be contributing to high attrition rates. She compared the demands on teachers to “straitjackets when it comes to how [teachers] interact with kids, what they ask of kids, what they bring to the classroom.”

With respect to language arts in particular, Atwell said that schools’ emphasis on test preparation leaves little room to emphasize the benefits of reading and writing. “It’s just become a series of rig—not even rigorous, almost ridiculous exercises that don’t have any connection with the enjoyment of stories or the exercise of self-expression,” she said.

Atwell suggested that she would like to see a greater emphasis on performance assessments in schools. “We really need to be looking at what individual kids are achieving in the disciplines, authentically and personally,” she said, citing her school’s evaluation method, which involves students creating portfolios and reflecting on their own work, as an alternative to standardized assessment.

At the time this was posted, the Varkey Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had not responded to requests for comments on Atwell’s statements about the state of teaching today.

UPDATE (March 26, 2015): In an emailed statement provided through the Varkey Foundation, Atwell walked back on her position slightly. “Teaching has been my pride and pleasure for more than four decades. I encourage anyone anywhere who enjoys working with young people to consider it as a career,” she said. “The world needs all the smart, passionate educators it can get.”

However, she also stressed that future teachers should be aware of what they’re getting into. “In U.S. public schools, these [challenges] include a tight focus on standardized tests and methods, which I feel discourage autonomy and encourage teaching to the test,” she said. “I empathize with aspiring teachers and I strongly believe that they need to be aware of and prepared for the particular challenges of the current climate.”

Photo of Nancie Atwell courtesy of the Varkey Foundation’s Global Education and Skills Forum 2015.

A form originally appeared on this page. It has been removed because we are no longer seeking submissions.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.