Heed the Call

“To every young person listening tonight who’s contemplating their career choice: If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make a difference in the life of a child—become a teacher. Your country needs you.”
Barack Obama, State of the Union 2011

The president’s call to action drew a standing ovation from all members of a deeply divided Congress—a heartening moment of affirmation for those of us who work in schools.

But are the best and brightest of our young people likely to heed this call? I fear not, or at least not in the numbers we need to achieve the educational transformation Obama envisions and our collective future depends on.

The desire to “make a difference” is a hallmark of youthful idealism, yet teaching remains a comparatively low-pay, low-status choice among my children’s college cohort, just as it was 30 years ago when I graduated.* I never considered becoming a teacher, although I had no “better” idea of what to do with my Princeton diploma. In retrospect I exhibited all signs of being made for the job, yet no one suggested it.

This missed opportunity surfaced following a recent visit from my delightful 23-year-old nephew (technically, he’s a second-cousin-once-removed-in-law). Picture a young Jimmy Stewart. Over dinner I broached a touchy subject: what he plans to do when he finishes college this spring. He doesn’t know. I asked if he was considering teaching. Not really. Somewhat apologetically, he acknowledged that his resume positions him pretty well to apply for a teaching position (an ESOL certificate and actual work experience as an English teacher in Senegal and as a substitute teacher in his hometown). But he wants to try something else. He’s not exactly sure what. We moved on to dessert and safer topics. Later, he retreated to our study to finish a term paper for a course on “strongmen and populism in Latin American and Spain.” He doesn’t speak Spanish, but chose the course because he wanted to know more about Latin culture. Intellectually curious, engaged with the world, and with an easygoing, quirky charm, he’s just the type of young teacher who would attract a devoted following.

The next day I wished I’d made a stronger case for why he should give teaching a try—not only because the profession needs more smart, thoughtful young men like him, but because I wish that 30 years ago someone had told me how much I would enjoy working in a school.

The teachers I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of working with these past five years are, by nature and necessity: committed, compassionate, creative, curious, dedicated, democratic, down-to-earth, energetic, fair, friendly, funny, generous, hardworking, helpful, honest, kind, observant, open minded, optimistic, patient, passionate, perceptive, principled, resourceful, tolerant, well-read and wise. They look out for each other, just like they look out for their students. They care about doing a good job and about doing good. You couldn’t ask for a better group of co-workers.

So, kids, listen up. If these qualities describe you, and you enjoy helping younger people realize their own potential to make a difference, heed the president’s call to become a teacher. Wall Street can wait, but the clock is running on preparing the next generation to “win the future.”


* A high-profile exception, of course, is Teach for America, which is as highly selective as any Ivy League grad school (< 10% of applicants accepted). After 20 years, TFA reports that 65% of its alumni stay in education, a significant improvement over the burnout rate of its early alumni. But the 4,500 TFA corps members are overwhelmingly female (68%); if even a prestigious program like TFA isn’t able to recruit more men, then the problems of low pay and low status will persist.

For further consideration:

“The Next Generation of Teachers” (Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education. White House Blog, 2/1/11)

Of the 541 members of the 112th Congress, 81 (15%) listed “education” as their occupation. innovation.cq.com/newmember/2010elexnguide.pdf (page 14)

“Let’s also remember that after parents, the biggest impact on a child’s success comes from the man or woman at the front of the classroom. In South Korea, teachers are known as “nation builders.” Here in America, it’s time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect. We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones. And over the next ten years, with so many Baby Boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.”
Barack Obama, State of the Union 2011


2 Responses to “Heed the Call”

  1. 1 Lisa Johnson February 3, 2011 at 8:05 am

    This piece should reach a wider audience. This morning I’m taking it to the school I work at and posting it in the reachers’ work room. It also belongs on a bulletin board at the School of Ed. on campus. Well said!

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