By Arun Ramanathan
My youngest daughter asked for a teacher’s kit for her birthday. A few days later, her bedroom had been transformed into a mini-classroom. On the wall, she’d posted the classroom rules and attached a tiny blackboard. She was standing in front of a multitude of stuffed animals and describing the day’s activities using the pointer and schedule from her kit.
When I walked in, she immediately put me to work transitioning the “students” to the next activity. I picked one up and asked where to put the “fat bear”. She frowned and said, “Daddy, we not use words like fat when describing people. It’s dehumanizing”. Then she placed me in a “restorative justice circle” where the bear told me how much I had damaged its psyche.
I realized then what a wonderful teacher my daughter could be. Nine years old and she already had that perfect mix of tenderness and bossiness that all great teachers have in their DNA.
So what I would I would say if ten years from now, if she asked me whether she should become a teacher?
Of course, the answer is “yes.” It runs in the family. My wife and I met when we were teaching in neighboring elementary schools.
But her career won’t be my decision. I can talk to her till I’m blue in the face about giving back to her community and the joys of working with children. But she’s going to have a lot of other choices. And that got me thinking about how to make teaching so appealing that it will be her number one choice.
Flip the Rhetoric on Pay and Rewards
The first thing I’d do is flip the rhetoric on pay and benefits. This is the standard pitch to anyone interested in teaching: “It’s an incredibly rewarding job. But the pay sucks. And you spend twenty hours a day grading papers and lesson planning only to be told by your tone deaf boss to make miracles happen every minute. But it’s incredibly rewarding”
Compare that to this pitch: “Yes. It’s a tough job, but there are some very practical rewards. You get paid holidays, two plus months of vacation in the summer and better benefits than those suckers in the private sector. Plus if you stick it out, your pay goes up and you end up with a decent pension (unlike those suckers in the private sector).”
The second sounds better. But anyone interested in teaching gets told they have to be a martyr to succeed. Is it any wonder that so many teachers leave before their third year when their idealism fades? Martyrdom is an excellent recruiting tactic but it plays hell on retention.
I also want to tell her that teaching is a job where ambition is encouraged and rewarded. Young people today are ambitious—perhaps sometimes overly so. They want to know that there’s a path to being the “boss”. But when it comes to teaching, young people aren’t encouraged to think about leadership. There’s nothing weird about a cadet leaving the police academy and aspiring to be chief of police or a junior analyst wanting to become CEO. In most professions there’s a clear pathway up. But how many young teachers hear “you could be superintendent one day?”
How many candidates are told that they have the talent to become a teacher leader, a principal and then make it into district leadership? Instead, district leaders are called administrators. Their jobs are often derided as unnecessary and their salaries publicly labeled as exorbitant. Scorning and diminishing leadership doesn’t benefit a profession that needs an influx of smart, ambitious, talented young women and men interested in leading. They should want to enter into teaching.
Next, I want to tell her that teaching is a job where greatness is valued and you’re rewarded for taking the toughest jobs. Young people are acutely aware of fairness. If they work their tails off and do an amazing job, they expect to be rewarded, not told that they’ll be the first ones to be laid off during budget cuts. They also have a pretty strong sense of self-worth. I would love my daughter to work with kids with severe disabilities and emotional disturbance like I did in my twenties. Special educators, like math and science teachers, are in high demand. Yet, no matter how hard the job or scarce the skill, everyone gets paid the same. That’s not much of an incentive.
Finally I want to say that teaching is a profession where she’ll be mentored and cared for. Perhaps I sound too much like her daddy, but teaching can be a difficult, draining job, especially in communities impacted by poverty and violence. Many parts of the private sector, despite its reputation for brutality, focus on employee well being, if only to avoid losing big investments in young talent. It’s hard to find similar examples in education. Instead, such efforts are often described as a waste of taxpayer money. What’s the bigger waste, spending small amounts of money on teacher well being or losing the hundreds of thousands of public dollars invested in a young teacher who leaves the profession? What if we could tell young people interested in teaching that they’d get a coach and mentor (in person or virtually) and access to a broad array of health and wellness supports? What a difference that could make!
So going back to the start, the answer to the question will always be yes. You should teach. But in the time it took me to write this column, she’d already taken her play classroom down and started playing chef. I can’t deny it. It made me sad. But it’ll make me sadder still, if 10 years from now, I can’t give a pitch that makes her say yes to teaching.
(Arun Ramanathan leads Pivot Learning Partners, a state-wide education non-profit that partners with over 90 of California school districts to support their efforts to improve leadership development, education finance and teaching and learning.)
Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net
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