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“You’re Too Smart to be a Teacher!”

I’m sure this post will make some people mad, but I had strong feelings about assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education Jal Mehta’s op-ed published by The New York Times today.  I don’t agree with most of what he said, but this part struck a chord with me:

In the nations that lead the international rankings — Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Finland, Canada — teachers are drawn from the top third of college graduates, rather than the bottom 60 percent as is the case in the United States. Training in these countries is more rigorous, more tied to classroom practice and more often financed by the government than in America. There are also many fewer teacher-training institutions, with much higher standards. (Finland, a perennial leader in the P.I.S.A. rankings, has eight universities that train teachers; the United States has more than 1,200.)

There are brilliant people out there teaching right now.  I know because many of them are my friends.  I teach with amazing and smart colleagues.  My Twitter PLN teaches me something new everyday and forces me to reflect on my own teaching.  There are also some people who have no business being in the front of a classroom. I know some of them, too.

But too many of our brightest minds don’t even consider going into teaching.

I’m not saying this because I read statistics or talked to someone who did research.  I’m saying it because I lived it.  And I see it everyday with my students.  Teaching isn’t seen as a viable, worthwhile option for our brightest minds and that’s a terrible reflection of the value placed on teaching in this country.

I graduated in 2001 from High Technology High School.  My classmates were all brilliant, the top students in our county, and I count among my friends numerous engineers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, and CEOs.  One friend wrote a best-selling science book.  Another founded a rival to PayPal.  Many friends have worked for Google, Apple, and other top companies.  They write best-selling apps and are involved in world-changing research. They work in labs at Princeton, MIT, Harvard, and Yale.  They write code for Google and Mozilla.  They are the minds behind start-ups and tech giants.

But you know what my friends and classmates aren’t doing?  Teaching.  I can count on one hand those of us who went into teaching K-12 after college.  And that’s looking at multiple graduating classes.  When I decided to go into teaching, people looked at me and said, “But why?  You’re so smart!”.  As if you can’t be intelligent and want to go into teaching. Even today, when old friends learn that I am a teacher, they tilt their head and look at me as if I made a mistake.  They can’t understand why someone “so smart and with so many options” would decide to teach. Then they ask when I will go into administration.  When I explain I love the classroom and have no desire to enter administration, they shake their heads.  Obviously, I am not as intelligent as they thought I was.

It’s no different today. Looking at my current students, I have two or three  who have mentioned even a passing interest in teaching as a career.  And they’ve all told me that their parents are shocked to hear they would consider going into teaching when they “could do anything they want”!

In other countries, teaching is a competitive field.  Only the top third of college students are able to enter teaching programs in many of the countries exalted by the US for providing a top-tier education, such as Finland.  Teacher training courses are rigorous and well-respected.  A small number of colleges and universities are able to grant teaching licenses and teachers continue their training after entering the field, supported by their schools, districts, and the nation as a whole.  While many of these countries are smaller and more homogenous than the US, making the classroom much different from ours, that doesn’t change the respect given to teachers by those nations. And that respect starts when someone enters the teaching field as a university student.  It’s difficult to get into teaching, so you must be great if you make into the major, graduate, and get a job.  The United States is, unfortunately, very different.

Why aren’t our top students becoming teachers?  Obviously not every brilliant person is cut out to be a teacher.  All you have to do is sit in on a few college classes to see that.  But there are many intelligent people out there who would make fabulous teachers and are not entering the profession.  And I think the reason our top students discount teaching is because our teachers are seen as disposable. The public and politicians spit vitriol blaming teachers for everything from student behavior to the downfall of our country.  Teachers aren’t trusted to make decisions about their own classes and instead administrators and corporations hand down scripted curriculums.  Reformers like Michelle Rhee, who have barely any training or teaching experience, spend their days telling us how to teach.

Stop.  Just stop.  Start treating teachers like professionals– like engineers, doctors, lawyers, CEOs, actuaries, scientists–and we will attract more people to teaching.  When more people are attracted to teaching as a career, universities can develop more rigorous teacher education programs.  And teaching can stop being a back-up career for the lowest 60% of college students. Far too many people in the US think that teaching is an easy career, one to go into if you can’t decide what else to do. I have  too many acquaintances who went into teaching because they thought it would be easy or they wanted a job they could do for a few years before getting married.  The requirements for becoming an education major or doing alternate route are much lower in teaching than in many other professions. Do you know what I had to do to enter the highly-respected teacher education program at my university?  Fill out a sheet of paper, have a 2.75 GPA, show proof of a Mantoux test, and pass the Praxis I.  My friends in engineering and science majors had higher GPA requirements and more pre-requisites.

Who on earth would go into teaching today, with the vitriol and hatred spewed at teachers? Certainly not many college-bound students with other options. And those at the top of their class have lots of other options. Hmmm….study business and be respected or study education and spend the next twenty years being cursed and blamed for everything wrong with this country? Sounds like an easy decision to me.

We need to change how teachers are viewed. Obviously there are many amazing teachers out there. I know lots of them. But we need even more. And we need to make sure education isn’t a last-choice major for anyone. If it is, they should be weeded out instead of thrown in front of kids. (*ahem* Teach For America, etc *ahem*). Teaching is a profession, it’s what teachers are. It’s not just something we do. So it’s time to raise the bar.

We need to move away from the Praxis and other one-time tests.  In order to earn certification, teachers should be reflecting and improving constantly.  One way to do this is through a portfolio-based requirement. That’s why I love National Board Certification. Unlike the Praxis exam (pretty much the only requirement in some states), National Board is reflective, difficult, and empowering. Something like National Board certification should be required of all teachers within the first few years of teaching. And the process should start in college, just like it does for other well-respected professions.  Take engineering, for example.  Engineers are expected to attain their PE, or Professional Engineers Certificate.  Many employers in industry and government require licensure in order to advance to senior engineering positions. It’s a years-long process:

The Licensure Process:
1. Earn an engineering degree.
2. Pass the F.E. Examination. (8-hour exam)
3. Gain engineering employment experience. (All states require that candidates complete four years of qualifying engineering experience, under the supervision of a professional engineer.)
4. Pass the P.E. Examination. (8-hour exam)

Engineers are expected to pass two exams and complete four years of work under a mentor before becoming certified.  They are made aware of this in college and begin with internships before graduation. Why aren’t teachers required to do something similar?  Instituting a process like this would require districts, states, and the federal government to provide teachers with more support, more time to collaborate, and more professional development.  You may not agree with it, but the lack of requirements for teaching and the abundance of teacher education programs make the general public see teaching as a career anyone can do.  There’s no challenge in getting certified, as long as you don’t have a criminal record, and it’s a career that anyone can enter.  That needs to change.

Great teachers are passionate.  They love their teaching material or content area.  They are life-long learners and model that for their students.  They read.  They write.  They collaborate.  They are patient. They are kind.  They are the utmost professionals.  But they are treated as inferior and worthless.  “I can be a teacher! It seems like such a nice gig,” is a refrain I’ve heard all to often from those not in education.  They think because they showed someone in their office how to print from the computer or how to use the new Keurig that they can teach a room full of high schoolers.  Or even worse, “I went to school. I had teachers from kindergarten til twelfth grade.  I learned how to teach.” Who needs to study education, right?  Teachers are little more than babysitters in the eyes of too many.

Raise the bar.  Make the education major more like pre-med, engineering, or most hard science degrees.  Require a higher GPA to enter the program.  Institute pre-requisites.  Require education majors to double-major or minor in a subject-area  or child-development. Send students into the field more often and for longer periods of time. When they enter the field, new teachers should be mentored by great teachers for more than just their first year.  Districts should provide more opportunities for authentic professional development.  Teachers should be given more autonomy and celebrated when they and their students succeed (and success should not equal scores on a standardized test).  High-achieving schools and teachers should serve as models.  Pay teachers like the professionals they are.  Not just a living wage, but a respectable wage.  This will take money.  But it’s about time we made education a priority, rather than just a soundbite.

Raise the bar, raise the profession, and raise each other up in the eyes of the public.

When teachers are seen as professionals, it will be a more attractive career choice for the brightest minds.  And a larger pool of applicants, especially talented applicants, can only help students in the classroom.  Choosing to teach shouldn’t be seen as a waste of potential.  It should be the most respected decision one can make.

Our children deserve the best, so we need to attract the best to the classroom and keep them there.  Stop telling me I made a mistake and instead ask me about a day in my classroom.  Stop telling your son or daughter that choosing to teach will be a waste of their talent and instead encourage them to make a difference.  Stop encouraging great teachers to leave the classroom and enter administration, as if teaching is beneath them.

There’s no such thing as being too smart to teach.  Start respecting me and my colleagues.  Start treating us like the professionals we are.  Start making a difference.

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