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Why Become a Teacher Today?

Teaching in public schools today would have been unimaginable to my generation.  Although we never chose the classroom to become affluent, there were other factors that made a career so gratifying.  These are either gone or will be gone in the years ahead, which is why supply and demand are so out of whack ("Where Did All the Teachers Go?" The Progressive, Oct. 10).

The shortage now is most acute in math, science, special education, and bilingual education, but I expect other subject fields will ultimately be affected.  That's because the things college graduates counted on have either been eliminated or undermined. 

I'm talking about the freedom teachers used to have in designing lessons to achieve stipulated goals.  When I began my career in 1964 in the Los Angeles Unified School District, all teachers were handed a curriculum guide for their specific subjects.  The goals were stated in terms that allowed teachers great leeway in preparing instruction.  I remember how surprised I was when scripted lesson plans came into being in the Chicago school system.

I'm also talking about the role that standardized testing has come to play in schools today. The only such tests during the 28 years that I taught in the same high school were used strictly for diagnostic purposes.  They were never used punitively.  Careers today, however, are disproportionately determined by results on standardized tests given far too often.  I don't know any teachers who feel they can do their best when the sword of Damocles hangs over their heads.  They welcome constructive feedback, but they rightly resent constantly being evaluated by these instruments designed by outsiders who have no idea what their students are like.

If these changes were not enough to destroy morale, there are the endless attacks on teachers that attempt to scapegoat them for virtually all the ills in American society.  When I began teaching, students raised their hands and addressed me as "Sir."  The media rarely depicted teachers as incompetents, layabouts and selfish.  There was respect for the most part.  The Wall Street Journal's opinion pages, for example, are notorious for kicking teachers when they are down.  I guess the newspaper believes that beatings will somehow improve performance. 

Despite these new conditions, some college graduates opt for the classroom.  I take my hat off to them.  But I hope they are going into teaching with realistic expectations.  If not, they will burn out and quit.

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