Teaching Profession Commentary

‘An Impossible Choice’

By Lesley Guilmart — June 03, 2008 4 min read

This is my fifth year teaching high school English—the last year I had planned to teach. If I leave, I will be an education statistic: Many have claimed that almost 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession within five years. If I stay, I fear for my financial future. Until now, I believed that the only reason I stuck around for this long was the conventional wisdom that in education it takes about five years to hit your stride. I didn’t want to walk out before I was any good.

Every single year has been a struggle. Every single year, I have sworn up and down that this is not my permanent career. Yet, every single year, I have gotten better at this gig.

This year, I realize that I enjoy teaching more than I dread it, more than it scares me—which, in itself, is terrifying. The other day, my principal said, in front of the entire staff, that I am a “gifted teacher.” My students inspire me. I think about them when I’m at the grocery store or the gas station, and smile. Or I laugh out loud, and people give me funny looks. My students are improving as readers, writers, and thinkers, and it’s because I know what I’m doing. This feels great.

I am half-ashamed of my job. I don’t think I should have to be some kind of ascetic to do the good work that I love. I want respect and compensation for my contribution.

Why, then, do I feel as though I have to get out? Why do I feel guilty for applying to a master’s-degree program in education—as if I’m wasting my money and my youth?

Because my instinct tells me I need to start making money. I want to be able to give my children everything—a quality education (which requires shelling out for an expensive neighborhood or for an expensive private school), opportunities to travel, nice things, and access to top-notch universities if they choose that path. I am afraid that I won’t be able to provide those opportunities if I keep teaching. (This would probably be an easier profession to commit to if my fiancé weren’t also a teacher.)

And, sure, I can be good with money. I can make it stretch, and maybe I can give my children everything I imagine for them. But at what personal cost? What about me? I like vacations, gym memberships, expensive haircuts, nice clothes, new books, and a debt-free life, complete with savings and retirement investments. I have all that now. Can I bear to give it up? Do I have to choose between my comfortable lifestyle and having children if I keep teaching?

Which leads to my big question: Why should I, as a “gifted” teacher, have to choose between doing a job I love, one that is sorely needed by society, and a run-of-the-mill, upper-middle-class lifestyle?

I believe it has something to do with our priorities as a society. How can we care so much about national security that we’ll spend billions of dollars on a war, but then say that we lack the money to raise teacher pay, renovate schools, and shrink class sizes? Is the quality of our children’s education not directly linked to national security? Because if we continue in this vein, producing graduates (if they graduate) who lack basic skills and the capacity to think critically, the result will be our increased reliance on intellectual capital abroad. We may eventually be so dependent on other countries for our security and prosperity that we can no longer call ourselves free and self-reliant. Will we be vulnerable to security threats because we don’t have enough citizens who can think their way through complex social and logistical problems?

Doesn’t this make my job indispensable? Don’t my hard-earned teaching skills make me even more indispensable? Anyone who tries their hand at teaching admits that it’s the hardest job they’ve ever done. In other industries, highly skilled, indispensable workers with challenging jobs earn generous compensation because employers know that they could easily go elsewhere. So why doesn’t this reasoning have an impact on teacher pay? Is it the profession’s pink-collar status? Is it because parents who can afford it send their children to elite private schools, thus relinquishing their motivation to demand higher-quality public education? Is it because we, as a society, don’t care about our poor and our working class?

With the above in mind, I guess I could just frame my career as a “calling” and be all pious about the sacred work I’m doing, smile beatifically, and expect no substantial reward. But I keep running into a wall: Again, I like nice things. And, also, I graduated magna cum laude from an elite university in the Northeast, as a member of a generation of women who don’t confine their professional prospects to the “female ghetto,” as Lois P. Frankel calls it in her book Nice Girls Don’t Get Rich.

But after college I joined Teach For America as a résumé-booster and got hooked. By now, my peers have earned their medical and law degrees; they’re working on their M.B.A.s; they own small businesses; they’re producers; they’re stockbrokers. And me? Well, I’m just a teacher.

Despite my humble profession, I’m still competitive. I demand excellence from myself and my students. I am proud of what my students have achieved. But I am half-ashamed of my job. I don’t think I should have to be some kind of ascetic to do the good work that I love. I want respect and compensation for my contribution. I want to hold my head up among my high-achieving professional peers. In fact, I think more high-achieving young people would choose education if they knew they would earn what they’re worth, both in salary and social standing.

My Teach For America friends are leaving the profession and moving on to more-lucrative careers. You might say they’ve sold out. I can’t say I blame them. But I love teaching. I’m good at it. Kids are benefiting from the work I do. So I face an impossible choice.

A version of this article appeared in the June 04, 2008 edition of Education Week as ‘An Impossible Choice’


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