Recently a friend contacted me about her daughter, who was graduating from university. Carol, she told me, had wanted to be a teacher all of her life. She had worked in camps and day care centers. She had gone into university with the idea of completing her degree in biology and then getting her teaching certificate. But now Carol wasn’t so sure. One of her favourite professors, it seems, had taken her aside and asked her why Carol wanted to go into education. “You’re way too smart for teaching,” the prof told her. “Why don’t you do graduate work and go into research?”
Way too smart for teaching. I am an unabashed advocate of education as a profession, and this comment really hurts. Since my baptism by fire 45 years ago in the classrooms of rural Newfoundland, I have taught from university to elementary levels, from small native communities in BC to West Africa. Most of the teachers I started with were bright, creative and committed. Teaching was a calling. Sure teaching was tough, but that was the challenge. That’s why you had to be smart, resourceful and innovative.
But over the intervening years, something seems to have happened. The vocabulary of passion in education has evaporated. While certainly many capable and dedicated young people still enter the field, many do not. Over half of women teachers graduating from 1962 -65 scored above the 80th percentile on standardized tests. Forty years later less than 10% did so. (Men slipped from 20% to 10%). From 1970 to 1975, ACT scores for women entering teacher education fell from 10 percent above the female mean to 2% below and have stayed there.
While much of this decline can be attributed to the opening up of new career opportunities for women, the results are disastrous. Gallup describes the situation this way: “Perhaps the most important challenge facing schools today is their flagging ability to recruit and retain effective teachers.”
Forty-two states issue emergency credentials to people who may have taken no education courses, have no degree, and have not taught a day in their lives just to keep schools open. Some rural school districts in the US have not begun a school year with a full complement of credentialed teachers in decades. More alarming, more than half of new teachers leave within the first five years. Ironically, studies show that the best and the academically brightest are more likely to leave, most citing job dissatisfaction for their departure.
As a Harvard study put it, “Many experts worry that individuals choosing to become teachers are generally less talented, less ambitious, less curious, less diverse demographically, and more risk-adverse than the workforce as a whole.”
If this is the case, then the spiral continues. One Canadian study indicates that student success correlates highest with one teacher characteristic (way higher than having an MA or even a teaching credential) — cognitive ability, or a teacher’s “literacy level.” This does not refer merely to an individual’s ability to read, but rather one’s “world knowledge,” general academic proficiency, and ability to communicate.
What is keeping the best and brightest away from the teaching profession? When outstanding young people do enter the field, why do so many make a hasty exit into other careers?
When highly literate university entrants are asked why they have not considered or have rejected teaching as a profession, the answers are many. University education programs are “Mickey Mouse.” Top-down, compliance-oriented public-school bureaucracies stifle creativity and initiative. Prescriptive curricula offer little opportunity for innovation. There are lots of better paying, more prestigious jobs that offer more creative and advancement opportunities. Schools don’t teach; they replicate, failing to adjust to new social changes and issues. Parents and society look to schools to solve social problems beyond the system’s capacity. Children are becoming increasingly difficult as they are spat out by semi-functional homes and an indifferent society. There are too many under-performing teachers in the field creating a culture of mediocrity.
The result? What labour economists call an “adverse-selection problem”: graduates with the strongest credentials opt for less demanding, better paying positions in the first place, and the most capable of those who do go into teaching often leave the profession within a few years for administrative jobs or other professions.
Nelson Mandela said that “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” It is a field that produces extraordinarily intense, satisfying human relations. It can be personally and socially transformative. Teaching is challenging and satisfying. It constantly demands (and develops) compassion, creativity and patience. It is the most passionate of professions. Educators have in their hands one of the few tools that can genuinely build hope, well-being and a sustainable future.
And it can give back more than any signing bonus, any stock option, any promise of corporate advancement. As educators, the deep interpersonal relationships we enter into pay off with joy, pain, triumph, frustration, anger, success, failure, wisdom, growth and a sense of real contribution, community and accomplishment. Teaching, quite simply, makes us fully human.
This is not the education of passion I hear talked about. We need to get beyond the bureaucracy and dumbing down and back to the excitement of transformative teaching and learning. Then, perhaps, Carol — and her professor — will once again see teaching as a career worth the investment of her skills, knowledge, intellect — and passion.