To teach or not to teach
December 30, 2011
By Jay Bullock
Two years ago in this space, I wrote a column I remain quite proud of—a letter to the student teacher I hosted that semester in my classroom.
I was also very proud of that student teacher, one of the best young teachers I’d ever met, with a sense of humor and a sense of purpose on top of a tremendous base of knowledge. I was very excited for him and his future students at the end of our time together.
He now makes his living tending bar.
This fact, among many, many others, has led me to reconsider that letter from two years ago. In it, I thought I offered sound advice for slogging through the unpleasant morass that is teaching in the Milwaukee Public Schools: be patient, be the students’ ally, be the good teacher they need in their lives—plus, don’t let the bureaucrats grind you down.
Not that any of that is bad advice. To be sure, when a new student teacher arrives in my class later this month, I will repeat it and repeat it and repeat it like a mantra.
What I am reconsidering about that first letter, though, is the imagined conversation between the Me of Today and College Me, the one just starting his own student teaching—whether the Me of Today shouldn’t have just screamed, “Run away!”
This question about whether to teach is not unique to me. Both the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators have noted the significant spike in retirements among teachers in 2011. A quick googling finds that enrollment this year in schools of education is down from Long Island to Los Angeles. More teachers are getting out, and fewer teachers are getting in.
Bill Henk, dean of Marquette University’s School of Education and a former teacher, blogged last October to try to explain why enrollment was down in his program. After 1,300 words chronicling reasons not to teach, he wrote, “There is no question that the work would be significantly more of a struggle in every respect than what I experienced in the classroom. Times have definitely changed, and I can’t say for the better.”
Like Henk, it would take me a lot of words to list the changes I’ve seen since I started: the way that teachers are beat down from outside the school walls by politicians, by media, by budgets, by semi-literate internet commenters; the way that teachers are beat down from within the school walls, by “data,” by strict curriculum and pacing guides, by a school board that slashes pay, by students who just don’t want to learn. This is not what College Me expected life as a teacher to be like.
Last month, I got new glasses, and the young woman helping me at the counter saw on my form I had written teacher as my profession. “I’m going to UWM next fall,” she said. “I want to be an English teacher so bad.” She was so excited.
“How is it being a teacher?” she asked. “Do you like it?” I hesitated.
Right then was probably the closest I would ever come to seeing College Me at a moment when one word of warning would really make a difference. Teach, or not?
“Yeah,” I finally said. “It’s worth it for the kids.”
Jay Bullock is an English teacher at Bay View High School who blogs at folkbum.com. Contact him at email@example.com.
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