Friday, August 26, 2011

I Don't Want To Be A Teacher

Here's the thing: I am passionately interested in education. I've mentioned before that i was homeschooled, but i haven't said much about it before. That's a subject for another post. For now, i'll just say that public schools were ill-equipped to handle me appropriately.

I have two BAs, one in English creative writing and one in the psychology of child and adolescent development. I wanted to work as a counselor with high school students. Not a school counselor or a guidance counselor, but a psychologist who worked with troubled children and teenagers.

But once i got to college, my focus shifted. More and more, i saw students who were unprepared for academic success. I saw that students on the extremes of the spectrum (gifted or struggling) felt that their needs were not being met, and that average students were bored and frustrated by teachers who "teach the (standardized) tests".

After my sophomore year, i got a summer job in the admissions department of my college. One of the things i was working on was a spreadsheet for a particular academic review committee. This committee made final decisions about students on the low end of the spectrum. Sometimes it was clear that the student worked hard and wanted to learn, but that a learning disability or family situation had gotten in the way of their academic achievements. Sometimes it was clear that a student simply wasn't able to handle higher education.

Managing this spreadsheet was deeply and profoundly depressing. In many cases, it was simply too late for us to do anything. If a student has reached the 12th grade without attaining at least a 9th grade competency in the three R's, what can a college do to bring them up to speed? This child should have been helped far earlier. But now they have somehow graduated, and there is nothing we can do.

But this wasn't only depressing. It also made me angry, and i couldn't quite put my finger on why. One day, i was asked to write a brief description for the catalogue of our academic support program. As i researched this program, i found something that explained my anger. According to our website, the purpose of this support program was to help students who had graduated from high school without being academically prepared for college.


The whole point of high school is to prepare you (academically, socially, psychologically, etc) for whatever comes next. If that is college, great. Your SAT scores may not be off the charts, but you should be able to take that next step. Maybe you need a little extra support. But you should be able to graduate from high school and make a fairly seamless transition to college. And if college is not in your future, it should be because you don't want to go to college, and you should still be intellectually, socially, and psychologically prepared to go out into the workforce. It makes absolutely no sense to me that any person can graduate from high school and not be prepared for that next step. What are the graduation requirements that you have fulfilled?

More and more, this issue worked its way under my skin and itched. My head swirled with the names on the spreadsheet, the experiences of my friends, my own memories of public school. I resolved to take my degree in child and adolescent development, get some advanced degrees in human development (and cognitive processes, research, public policy, etc), and take on public education. I wanted to fix the system.

In my junior year, i made friends with an education professor. He had taught high school English for nearly ten years before returning to his alma mater to train the next generation. He began telling me that i should be a teacher. I resisted this. I didn't want to teach; i only wanted to work in education from the outside. While i conceded that a teaching background might give me credibility and valuable experience in my quest, i also thought it would be good for me to do this research without being biased by my own students. I wanted to look at hard data and make my decisions with an open mind.

In my senior year, i had decided to defer grad school for a time. I wanted to narrow my focus a little more so that i could select an appropriate graduate program. I wanted to pay off my student loans. I wanted a break from school. I had prayed about it and felt that it was right to take some time off before pursuing advanced degrees in psychology. But this friend, Ben, wouldn't let the whole teacher thing go.

More and more, i thought about teaching, and more and more i resisted the idea. I don't like talking to people. Teaching is all about talking to people; and not just students, but also parents and administrators. I'd have to do SAT prep, which would go against the grain of everything i wanted to accomplish. I'd have to make lesson plans, which would be boring. I'd have to do the same thing year after year after year, and i'd be doing it for very little pay. I felt no attraction to that path in life.

People began telling me that i would be a good teacher. People who had no idea that i was thinking about this. People began asking me how my student teaching was going because after four years, they had forgotten that i was double majoring in English and psych and just assumed that i was an education major. I was working in a private school and seeing the things done well and things done badly, and i couldn't stop myself from making mental notes about how i would do things.

Finally, i realized that God was definitely calling me to teach. I was pissed. I tried to argue the point with Him, but He wouldn't cave. He kept making counter-arguments, and although He totally could have, He never resorted to the cheap, "Because I said so," rebuttal. But we both knew that that sentence was between us, the unspoken ultimate ultimatum.

If pressed, i'd have to say that my decision to teach was made reluctantly, even irritably, because everyone else has fucked it up and now i have to go in there and fix it. I want it to be done well, and i realize that the best way to ensure that it is done well is to do it myself. But that doesn't make me any less pissed about it. I still plan to get my advanced degrees in psych and to work in research and administrative positions in the general field of public education. But for now, all of that is being deferred in favor of an M.Ed. I'm going to teach high school English, and i'm going to do it well, and i'm going to be pissed about it.

But i'm going to do it well. Ben insists that, once i get started, i'll love it. I think i probably won't hate all of it. This was never what i wanted to be doing, but life hits you that way sometimes. It's a means to an end, and when all is said and done, there are worse ways to fix public education than simply going in there and teaching. And since we've already tried pretty much all of the worse ways, it may be time to admit that we've run out of options.

I don't want to be a teacher. But i do want there to be more literate people in the world. I do want those who want to go to college to have that opportunity. I do want people to speak and write clearly and correctly. And i have enough self-awareness to know that i can't keep my hands out of this effort. I have to be involved. So i'll teach.

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