Saturday, October 01, 2005

Teaching as a [non-]career

From an NYT article about the increasing popularity of the "Teach for America" program [emphasis mine]:

---
Lucas E. Nikkel, a Dartmouth graduate, wants to be a doctor, but for now he's teaching eighth-grade chemistry at a middle school in North Carolina, one of nearly 2,200 new members of Teach for America.

"I'm looking at medical school, and everybody says taking time off first is a good idea," he said. "I think I'm like a lot of people who know they want to do something meaningful before they start their careers."
---

So:

1) Teaching is apparently not a real career.
2) Once you start your "real" career, you're by definition not doing anything meaningful.

Given the high turnover rate in teaching [at least below the university level], I suppose you could make the claim that teaching doesn't end up being a long-term career for most people who start out as teachers. And I can't say I really blame them, if Christina's experience as a middle school teacher is anything to go by -- given the conditions in most schools, you have to really, really love teaching [or not have any other options, I suppose] to stick with it.

I do wonder how these young sort-of idealists are perceived by people who are career teachers, though [I say "sort-of" because the article implies that a lot of them do this as a way to help them get to where they really want to be ie law school, medical school etc, not because they're all that excited about teaching itself]. My guess is that the Teach For America folks are regarded as dilettantes, listened to indulgently while they talk about all the amazing innovations they'll bring to their teaching and then patted on the head and told to run along and play.

On the flip side, while they may not have a systemic impact, in terms of changing the education landscape as a whole, these Teach For America teachers may very well impact the people who need it the most, namely the kids they're teaching. Having observed first-hand the kind of work that Christina was able to get out of the kids in her class [considered the remedial track] by dint of pushing them in creative ways, I can see that there's a lot to be said for teachers with the glint of idealism in their eye, the energy of youth and [probably quite importantly as well] the knowledge that they just have to keep up the Energizer-Bunny-while-getting-paid-next-to-nothing routine for 2 years, not 30. So, if in the end, a few more kids get turned on to that whole larnin' stuff thing, I guess it's worth it.

I still wonder about what thought process is behind the "doing something meaningful before you start your career" comment, though.

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