Saving Catholic Education: Policy and Pedagogy
Empower principals, teachers, and parents through school choice

Become a teacher? It's complicated...

The Twitterverse and blogosphere are abuzz this week over comments from teacher Nancie Atwell, who just after receiving the $1 million Global Teacher Prize, repeatedly told media outlets that young people really shouldn't consider teaching as a career option.

Atwell, a 42-year veteran who teaches at a demonstration school in Maine, expressed reservations about Common Core Standards and the "hyper-testing, hyper-accountability" culture of schools in explaining why she was unenthusiastic to encourage young teachers unless they could work in a private school.

I'll not try to catalog the range of reactions that greeted Atwell's comments.  Rather, I had to pause and consider the question for myself.  After 20 years in the education business, would I encourage a young person to become a teacher?

It's not merely an intellectual exercise for me, as a beloved nephew of mine, soon to graduate from high school, is strongly interested in elementary education.  He would be following me, his mother (my sister), and his grandmother - all of us career educators - if he becomes a teacher.  And I have to say that my advice to him is..."It's complicated."  But not really for the reasons Nancie Atwell cites.

The overemphasis on testing in our schools is a problem, for sure, as is our obsession with curriculum standards.  But these things don't have to dominate teachers' work lives.  School leaders simply choose to make these things their focus, because doing so is easier than articulating a compelling vision of instructional improvement that would meaningfully alter what happens in classrooms.

And besides, things teachers sometimes associate with testing culture - like the emphasis on common formative classroom assessment, or data analysis for the purpose of meeting students at their current level of learning - are the product of real growth in our profession. 

There was a time when teachers had full autonomy to teach as they saw fit.  It was call the 1970's (and all the decades before that).  These were not exactly halcyon days for student learning, as student achievement gaps were huge back then too and there was no general sense of concern or urgency about that fact.

Moreover, policy makers are obsessed with rigid, top-down accountability efforts because, as Mike McShane argues, we have a system in which the government operates a monopoly on educational delivery.  When most families have no other options for education than their local school district, draconian measures are often needed to ensure quality.

There are better alternatives (which McShane describes), ones that would give teachers far greater flexibility and autonomy, but these involve confronting powerful institutional forces that fight like hell to keep school structures exactly as they currently are.

And schools as they are is what prevents me from enthusiastically endorsing the teaching profession in general right now.  We've discovered so much about how children learn best, and it is almost certainly not in the rigid, teacher-directed, one-size-fits-all industrial mode that characterizes the vast majority of American schools, both public and non-public

Great teachers who want to transform learning into an experience that is far more student-directed and personalized face enormous obstacles from the very structure of schooling itself and all of the cultural traditions associated with it.

In this sense, Nancie Atwell is right: some of the most exciting things happening in education right now - and there are many reasons to be excited about education - are taking place in charter schools (see Libertas School of Memphis as one example) and private schools (like Sudbury Valley or the Cristo Rey network of Catholic schools) outside of the traditional public structures of education.  These are schools where parents and educators that have the freedom to customize the learning experiences for the needs of individual children.

Further exciting developments in personalized learning are taking place outside of the formal structure of schools altogether, including record numbers of families successfully choosing to homeschool, and various entrepreneurial start-ups in digital learning and even a la carte options that blend all three.  All of these represent terrific career opportunities for aspiring educators.

So by all means, yes: become a teacher.  It's one of those rare jobs that is true ministry, where despite all the limitations you can see your daily efforts transform the lives of others.  But understand what you are getting into.  And answer the call to teach for the students, not the institutions of schooling that don't always actually serve students well.  Consider how you might contribute to a revolution in schooling that gives students far more agency in the learning process. 

And understand that university schools of education, while doing an adequate job preparing aspiring teachers for working in schools as they are now, aren't always good at preparing you for schools as they should be, or as they will be in the future.

For this reason, consider first doing a degree in liberal arts, sciences, technology, or some other field that will allow you to learn about yourself and the world, and then pursue teacher training, either through an excellent program like the Montessori training offered by AMI or AMS and other organizations, or in a traditional teacher education program. 

But if you are going the traditional route, be willing to do the independent work to build your understanding of the history of industrial schooling and its alternatives.  The way schools are is not an accident and it's not fate either.  We can do things differently.

And for the record: I haven't given up on public schools either.  To the contrary, I endorse the "three sector" approach articulated by the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO).  America needs a healthy blend of great private schools, charter schools, and traditional public schools. 

In lone classrooms and in many whole schools, brave public educators are trying to make a shift toward more meaningful personalized learning.  You see evidence in the move toward standards-based grading and assessment, project-based learning, and competency-based instruction.  These are small but significant steps in the transformation American education requires, and many more innovative teachers are needed to help carry out this work.

All of which also depends on courageous, innovative, effective school leaders.  So don't just consider becoming a teacher.  If you are a teacher, or an aspiring one, also recognize the vital role you might play as a principal or in some other administrative role.  Because to make the teaching profession appealing, we also need great school leaders who can articulate this vision of student-centered learning, rise above the pettiness of testing and accountability, and lead teachers, parents, and students toward a whole new way of thinking about education.

And if that's your calling, here's how you can get started.



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