“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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29 Responses

  1. I am one of those top students who went into education, and I also get the comments about my choice to teach. I can assure anyone who hasn’t stood on the other side of the desk that teaching is some of the most challenging work you will ever do. I love teaching and my students, but the vitriol is causing me to look seriously at other options. Why would our brightest students choose teaching when they will constantly be told they are worthless and to blame for all of society’s problems.

  2. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on why you disagree with most of the NYT Op-Ed piece.

  3. Like Kay, I’m one of those top students who went into education, But I came in in midlife, through an alternative program. I work with several teachers who went through the same route: we taught while we learned. We are each highly effective. The profession would be less if, like law or medicine, we had only one path into the field.
    One place of disagreement: National Board Certification. I have seen teachers go through the process. During the year (or two) they are “doing boards,” they are less effective teachers — pulled from the classroom to complete hoop-jumping writings, finding people to run the video, dealing with unhelpful phone contacts, scanning and uploading every document. It’s insanely expensive and, frankly, inhumane. It’s a money-making scheme that says nothing about a teacher’s actual effectiveness. The idea that anyone is a master teacher after 3 years in the classroom is a joke. I love teaching, but after putting in a 10 hour day at work, I decided I’d rather be more effective by having a life, studying my content and pedagogy and having time to grade and give feedback than waste countless hours jumping through NB hoops.

    • Wow! I’ve never heard of National Board certification handled that way. That’s definitely wrong. I never left my classroom during the process.

      Schools should be giving teachers time to reflect and collaborate. In other countries, as the op-Ed said, teachers teach less. If we did the same here, the hoop jumping could end c

    • Yes, you are right about the National Board process. I’m completing my third and final attempt. It is a money-making, hoop-jumping farce.

      • Then maybe the process needs to be changed. But I stand by my feeling that teaching needs some sort of well-respected, national certification. Just like law, medicine, engineering, science, and many other industries!

  4. I am in agreement. It’s time to elevate and sweep mediocrity away. I remain discouraged about the lack of political will to make this happen, and I certainly don’t hear any policy wonks talking about making salaries for teachers commensurate with that of engineers or lawyers.

  5. Thank you for sharing this! I have lived it too. I actually had this conversation with my students… we were talking about SAT/ACT and they asked me what my scores were. I told them (very very high!) and they actually said, “So why are you just a teacher? You could have been anything!” My STUDENTS said that. We then had a nice long conversation about all the behind-the-scenes of teaching. Growing up, I was always getting awards and being told how smart I was. One of my best friends and I both got Phi Beta Kappa in college. She’s now a research scientist (biochemistry) and everyone tells her, “Wow, you must be so smart!” when they hear her job. Nobody ever says that when they hear I’m a teacher. That needs to change. Thank you for getting this message out!

  6. [...] Mulhern Gross’s excellent post “You’re Too Smart to be a Teacher!” was a direct response to the NYT op-ed shared above. It hit home. Maybe a little too close to [...]

  7. Thank you for taking the time to put into words what so many of us would like to say and share with the world. We need to raise our profession to the level that other professions have achieved. Kind of makes me wonder, where did we get put onto a whole different track? There is no way to place value on a smart, skilled teacher, because he/she can truly make the difference in the lives of children that needs to be made. And I do feel that teachers need to be both smart and skilled in the craft of teaching because both traits matter.Just being smart doesn’t cut it! It would be wonderful to keep this conversation going and to have it reach the minds (and possibly the hearts) of those who feel that they know so much about education that they can now create policy about our profession. I wonder when was the last time these policy makers actually spent time in a classroom. I’m guessing that it was just before they recevied their high school diplomas. Our profession has changed drastically in just the past five years so people who haven’t seen what is required of teachers recently shouldn’t be making judgment calls and life-altering decisions without real data. How many of us wish to have those who live to tear us down spend just one day walking in our shoes? A great post and many insightful comments. How can we make this go viral???

    • I think that the ideas that shaped public education in the US- from the beginning- are still pervasive. Also the notion that since everyone has spent time in an elementary/secondary classroom as a student, he knows how to be a teacher, needs to be truly reexamined among those who are not teachers. Since most of us have not spent many years in an operating room or court room, we can’t even pretend that we know how to be a doctor or lawyer. Your idea of finding a way to make this go viral might be a good one for sparking discussion to possible encourage those not in the teaching profession to think about this issue differently. Knowledge is power!

  8. I was asked the same thing back in the late 60s by one of my professors. Why would I, a bright and capable student, want to go into education. I taught for 41 years and am still at it ie: subbing, tutoring, volunteering and doing private teaching for writers clubs, etc. I brought the best I had to offer to my teaching because I was curious and had had a mainly liberal arts education and an award-winning masters’ program. I didn’t have to sit through mind-numbing course on bulletin boards, though I wonder if those still exist…..My point, though, is that scripted teaching and all the hoop-jumping to lead the data-driven life takes away as in robs teachers of valuable time and energy to be lifelong learners. It costs a lot of money to attend national conferences and every teacher should be attending at least one a year. I am watching the crazy way test scores are now part of a teacher’s evaluation. We are making a huge mistake micro-managing teachers. Sure there are those who need to do better, but where there are great teachers, don’t tie their hands so much they can no longer do great work. Also in order to teach, you need willing learners. Some children come to us just not willing to learn and you can do a fabulous job, but they are able or willing to do the learning. Whose fault is that? I think that it is a bigger problem and hard to tackle. One size will never fit all and teachers need empowerment, not ill-conceived and implemented dictums.

  9. I found both the NYT editorial and your response interesting and thought provoking. One part of the NYT article I agreed with is that teachers are often left to “wing it”; I can’t agree more. I take teaching interns in my classroom, and one of the components of teaching I try to clarify for them is how to apply the theories and strategies they learn about in books to the real life classroom- to show teaching interns how these ideas look and feel in practice. The teaching intern is not accountable to the mentor teacher, though, so depending on the student, these ideas are either embraced or not.
    I would like to see teachers appreciated as professionals like the other professionals I see as parents of students. Professional parents, with very busy schedules, who expect me to be available at a moment’s notice and to know every detail of Suzy’s academic career while I am shopping in Publix- that’s fine, but if I have to call the lawyer to ask a question, I will be charged at a rate of .20/hour, equal to $60.00; similar for the doctor, engineer, architect, etc. I would be doing a lot better if I could do the same.
    The key piece that you touch on is that teachers need to have protected time to really collaborate and plan and learn. I would like to have an assistant- like any other professional- I feel I could be far more effective with an assistant.
    Finally, after all of this, the vitriol is keenly felt. One must have a very tough skin to attend to teaching, and then be expected to be ever so nice at every moment.
    Thanks for shedding light on these important topics in teaching.

  10. I read your response to the op-ed this morning before I read the actual op-ed. I appreciate the points you made about the intellect of people going into education. Yes, you are smart. Yes, you had lots of options. Yes, you choose the right option for you. You’ve impacted so many children, Sarah. You were born to be a teacher. The world is better off because you are educating children and sharing what you learn with others professionally.

    I think the idea of doing something like NBC for all teachers a few years in would be interesting. I think the rigor of the certification process would keep only the best and brightest in the profession (which would be a good thing).

  11. Each one of us are given gifts, talents and aspirations. The internal manifestation of destiny in regard to one’s professional choice is ours alone. One must have light and love to truly be effective and progressive in the classroom. This is an innate and organic gift which cannot be taught, bought, or given. It takes a certain passion and conscious awareness to even be a teacher; especially a real one. It has nothing to do with what other countries do or what accomplishments are scored on standardized scales. If that were true then there would truly be peace, and intelligence and fellowship among mankind. So what if an engineer can build drones or tracking devices, what is the end result. So what if financial gurus can gaffle old ladies out of their income. So what if the so called smartest people in the world become leaders in a fake ass Western Babylonian system. So what if technological innovators invent devices which spy and track and take away true humanity. We have more communication devices created in the last ten years and people are more distant than ever, talk less, love less, communicate less. My point is this, let each one do what they do best. Get off that elitism! Teachers keep on teaching! Because it seems to me love, peace, wisdom, understanding and knowledge is at an all time low. Further most “experts” who speak on kids and teaching don’t really know the true reality of either. If they were to see a group of kids they would cross the street or clutch their purses and wallets. they have no love for children. Teachers keep doing what you’re doing no matter what they say. Leslie Younge is a true organic teacher. She chose that profession and rightfully so, it’s in the bone marrow.

  12. Thank you for writing everything I have been thinking for a long time. This is a terrific post.

  13. [...] 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…  [...]

  14. Yes, we need the wider public to see us as professionals. But the only way to make that happen is for teachers to begin telling the concrete stories of kids learning in their classrooms. Visit http://www.teachersspeakup.com to see how to do that.

  15. [...] "You're Too Smart to be a Teacher!" [...]

  16. When I visit other countries or speak with teachers from other countries, I am always and I mean always “blown-away” by the respect they have from their citizens. Education does not seem to be a political football, but one where students, teachers, and parents are respected. At one point in my life I had the opportunity to live in Holland. I learned that the criteria for being a school head or assistant head is to be as I was told, “One must be an excellent teacher, of course.” All new teachers meet once/week with the school head and other teachers. At this weekly after school meeting the new teachers discussed issues, challenges, and successes. One beginning teacher was having discipline problems with a boy. So, the teachers discussed how they work with this student. Even the school head is this general school (grades 9-12) had some discipline issues. After the experienced shared, in frustration this new teacher responded with, “But I want to know the answer. You all told me different things.” In his fatherly way the school head (who also taught chemistry) said something brilliant and empowering, “There is NO RIGHT WAY. We are here to help you find your own way. People are different and thus so are the dynamics in a teaching/learning situation” I was blown away by this school head’s response. In addition, i learned that being a school head or an asst. school head is not a lifetime job. The school heads are chosen by the school’s faculty.
    What a concept!

    I have recently heard that the Dutch Educational system is going through some changes. I hope these changes are positive one’s rather than punitive.

    Another aspect of the Dutch educational system is that all students bike to school. There are no school buses. But then, this country is small and there are bike paths integrated thought the entire country.

    I don’t understand why the politicians, corporations, and far too many people in this country blame the ills of society on teachers. I guess it’s easier to blame teachers rather than deal with the health, well-being, as well as the social and emotional conditions, which affect student growth, development, and learning.

  17. Interesting post Sarah – from outside the profession it makes a lot of sense. I continue to be surprised and disappointed by our attitudes as a country about certain areas, as well as the way many of our leaders can blithely claim that America has the best [healthcare, education, government] in the world while a evenhanded comparison of results will clearly demonstrate that we have a lot of ground to make up.

    Just as a point of clarification, in the engineering field, a PE is required or expected in certain areas but not necessarily for every engineer. I’m a mechanical engineer and of the people I know in the same discipline, only a couple have their license. For civil engineers, on the other hand, it’s virtually a requirement if you plan to use that degree.

    • Thanks Mark!

      And thanks for the clarification. I know a lot of civil engineers, so that makes sense.

  18. Thank you for this. The title of your post is exactly what I heard the first time I told an adult outside my family that I wanted to be a teacher, when I was 10. She was a trusted family friend and hearing that response devastated me. (And I didn’t understand–after all, I looked up to my teachers more than anyone.) I remembered it years later, when I told my college professors that I had gotten into my grad school program of choice, to study education, and they could barely muster a “good for you” (my college is highly ranked and I suppose they thought sending a student off to be traditionally certified, rather than TFA’d, was beneath them.) And I hear it now, when my students find out where I went to college. “What are you doing HERE?” they say, like, why would anyone graduate from that college and wind up at an urban charter school? Now I have the confidence to answer them with, “Because I love doing this and this is a great place to work,” but it took a lot of ego-crushing to get here. And to me, it doesn’t feel like a mismatch at all! My students surprise me every day with the questions they ask and the way they look at things; I feel like the excellent education I received as an undergrad lets me *just barely* keep up and give them the knowledge (sometimes broad, encompassing subjects I don’t teach; sometimes deep, plumbing the depths of my nerdery) they are looking for.

  19. Reblogged this on Living the Dream and commented:
    Oddly enough, I used to be one of the people who thought that teaching wasn’t a challenging profession. Believe me, I know better now.

  20. Your piece is perfectly put! I, like some others here got into teaching late. I came from a family of teachers and certainly respected them but was told by high school guidance counselors “you’re too smart to teach ” “give yourself a challenge” . At the end of an undergraduate pre-law program I realized my true passion for teaching while taking an elective in senior year.
    At first I did feel a little embarrassed to be entering teaching but after awhile I just couldn’t keep hidden the pride and sense of purpose I felt in pursuing this career.
    From what I see in our district; most new teachers do come from the top of their classes. I’m sure there will always be those who have the notion of teaching as a last choice type profession but certainly , high standards for certification will turn that thinking around.

  21. […] “You’re Too Smart to be a Teacher!” […]

  22. Sarah, when I told my mother I was going back to school to become a teacher, she stuffed brochures for pharmacy school in my mailbox. I think she has changed her mind about teaching now:)
    Today, the checkout clerk at Target thanked me for being a teacher and shared how much her son’s teacher was doing for him. People with school-age children seem to get it.

  23. […] to think about.  I’ve been coming back to this question of passion since I wrote my post “You’re Too Smart to be a Teacher”.  That post inspired conversations about teaching as a backup career and way to get by until […]

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