Teacher Voice

Here's What I Tell Young People Who Want to Go Into Teaching

Being in the classroom for 15 years and being a teacher leader for the past five, young people looking for direction have often asked me about going into education as a profession. Well…it’s a loaded question. I usually tell them, “run!” After a good laugh, a reflective and meaningful conversation occurs. This same conversation has been provoked on a wider scale over the past year. Any teacher not living under a rock has heard that last spring Nancie Atwell won the first Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize, the $1 million “Nobel Prize for teaching.” What most educators probably didn’t see was the interview on CNN where the media took a whole 2 minutes and 24 seconds to acknowledge her award. During the last 40 seconds of the interview, she answered a question about what she says to kids who are thinking about going into teaching.
Honestly, right now I encourage them to look in the private sector…if you are a creative, smart, young person, this is not the time to go into teaching unless an independent school would suit you.
I myself have told young people who want to go into teaching something similar, so my gut reaction is the same as Nancie Atwell’s. Following Atwell’s interview, Dan Brown wrote an op-ed, $1 Million Global Teacher Prize Winner Is Dead Wrong, where he criticized Atwell:
The most celebrated educator in the world is discouraging creative, smart young people from considering teaching in the American public school system, which serves 50 million children. That’s shocking. To support that position to its logical end, in which creative, smart young people steer away from teaching in public schools, is to surrender the future of public education.
Brown’s criticism challenged my own thinking and motivated me to reflect on the conversations I’ve had with young people considering education. For a brief moment, I felt ashamed of those times I had told young people to run. I had to ask myself why? I value the same things as Dan Brown. I want creative, energetic people teaching my own children and others’, too. Let’s face it: the future of this country depends on educators educating students, parents, other teachers and policy makers. Again, I asked myself, “Why did I tell young people to run?” What I had forgotten about were those meaningful conversations after the first laugh. Ironically, it’s because I want only the best and brightest to go into education. I like to ask young people why they want to go into teaching. Most of them tell me they like working with kids and having a work schedule similar to the school year (going home at 3:00 pm and getting summers off). That’s when the conversation gets real. I explain to them the demands of the job: lesson plans, grading, curriculum documents, assessments, data collection and analysis, counseling, parent teacher conferences, staff meetings, continuing education, etc. I try to show them that a lot of time away from kids goes into making the time spent with kids as meaningful as possible. I invite them to come spend an hour, a day, a week or even longer in my classroom. I want these idealistic young people to know that teaching is a lifestyle, not a job. If they can’t handle that, I respectfully ask them to invest their efforts somewhere else. I only want the most dedicated people working in schools. Did Nancie Atwell get it wrong? Not entirely. Was Dan Brown too harsh in his criticism? I don’t think so, either. Schools need intelligent, young professionals full of enthusiasm in classrooms. However, as experienced professionals, we have a responsibility to make sure that these young people know what they’re getting into. Once they have a clear understanding of the big picture, seasoned educators also have the duty to cultivate the talent and energy of those that commit to the lifestyle of teaching. So, what do I tell those young people now? “Let’s talk about your dedication to teaching.”  

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