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Get Real About Teaching Career

If they haven't done so already, seniors in colleges and universities across the country will soon decide the kind of work they intend to do after graduation. I'm glad there will be some who choose to teach in public schools.  At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I'd like to offer them a bit of advice in the same spirit that it is given to new principals ("The First Year: 10 Tips for New Principals," ASCD Edge, Nov. 4).  

The most important thing is to have realistic expectations. Yet when asked why they want to teach, seniors typically respond with such platitudes as "making a difference."  There's nothing at all wrong with that goal, except reality soon tests the idealism and dedication of graduates from even the most prestigious institutions. Unless novice teachers have made a commitment to be in the classroom during these turbulent times, they will experience frustration and anger, which over a protracted period result in burnout.

I've seen this phenomenon time and again.  It has little to do with knowledge of subject matter or pedagogy, as reformers have charged.  Instead, it has almost everything to do with a system that demands too much of teachers while supporting them too little. This does not mean there will not be exceptions.  I've known a few teachers who manage to retain their idealism in the face of appalling conditions.  But teaching in public schools today is a far cry from teaching in public schools when I began my career in 1964 in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and even more dramatically so than when I was a student in public schools. 

What stands out most vividly is that teaching is no longer fun.  The joy of experimenting with new instructional strategies and new materials has been replaced by incessant pressure to boost test scores at all costs.  The change has turned classrooms into virtual boiler rooms, with teachers' careers hanging in the balance.  Is it any wonder that teacher turnover is so high?  

Notice that I haven't mentioned low salaries. They certainly play a role in teacher disaffection. However, I don't believe they are enough to offset other factors. Where I come from, you don't kick a man when he's down, and assume that paying him for taking the punishment rights the wrong. It doesn't.

When June rolls around, I hope that graduates will bear in mind what I've written. If they do, I think they'll stand a better chance of adjusting to the classroom and have a long, gratifying career. I wish them the best.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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