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Response: A Teacher's 'Pay Isn't Great, but the Rewards are Worth Everything'

(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new "question-of-the-week" is:

If you had to do it all over again, would you still become a teacher? Why or why not?


In Part One, Shaeley Santiago, Anne Jenks, Sarah Thomas, Dr. Margarita Bianco and Stephen Lazar shared their answers. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with PJ, Stephanie and Megan on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here. By the way, you can also now listen to the show on Google Play and Stitcher, in addition to iTunes.

Today, Debbie Silver, Julia G. Thompson, Jenny Edwards, Roberta Israeloff, George McDermott, and Kara Vandas contribute their responses.

Response From Debbie Silver

Debbie Silver is a former Louisiana State Teacher of the Year and an internationally known presenter.  She is the author of the best-selling books, Drumming to the Beat of Different Marchers: Finding the Rhythm for Differentiated Instruction and Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8: Teaching Kids to Succeed. She co-wrote Deliberate Optimism: Reclaiming the Joy in Education and Teaching Kids to Thrive: Essential Skills for Success. She can be reached at www.debbiesilver.com:

Those You Can - Do Teach!

At a gathering a few years ago someone asked me if I had always known I would eventually be a teacher.  I candidly answered that I most assuredly had other plans for myself as I grew up.  As a small child, I decided I would dedicate my life to being a missionary.  I had visions of traveling to Japan (I have no idea why I picked that country), living among poor people, and doing selfless acts to make their lives better.  Early in school I found I had a flair for writing so I added to my plan; from elementary through high school I aspired to be a highly-acclaimed novelist.  And finally, there was that irrepressible class clown in me that thrived on attention and laughs.  Late in high school and early in college I decided I was meant to be a stand-up comedienne.  Ah, but as Robert Burns taught us, "The best laid plan o' mice and men . .  ."  So, I shook my head and told the questioner that I had never fulfilled my dreams, but I was grateful I had found my way into teaching, and I've never doubted that path.

Overhearing the conversation, my husband laughed, "Uh, Debbie, don't look now, but you are doing all those things your dreamed about."  I like to think of myself as a relatively astute person, but I must admit I had never considered how my teaching career has helped me follow my original aspirations.  I never made it to Japan, but I've worked with hundreds of disadvantaged children and their families.  I didn't write that best-selling novel, but I've been able to write several books about teaching.  I haven't yet appeared in a comedy club, but I've had the privilege of delivering humor to my students and other educators since I my first entered the profession.  Teaching has given me the opportunity to use my interests and talents in ways far beyond what I originally envisioned.  

Lest someone read this and think, "Well, there it is again, those who can't - teach," let me assure you that I think quite the opposite is true.  Those who can - DO teach.  I didn't choose teaching, it chose me.  The signs were always there, I just didn't pay attention.  I always loved helping others discover and accomplish things.  It was almost a reflex action to learn something and immediately want to share it with others.  I don't remember ever "playing school," but I wrote endless short stories in elementary school, and just recently I found one of my first novelettes, "Little Teacher."  Almost every teacher I know tells the same story.  We have always felt a compelling desire to connect with others and help them learn.

Thankfully we teachers don't have do it in the same way nor are we attracted to the same level of learners or the same subject areas. We can follow our individual interests and abilities as we help meet the needs of our diverse students.  What unifies us is that we are sustained by the joy we derive from helping others achieve.  Our jobs are demanding, our hours are long, and we are often thwarted by policies put in place by those far removed from the field.  We have had our hearts broken by students and appalling circumstances, but we continue to teach because believe we are helping to shape the future and that what we do is significant.  Being teachers is more than what we do - it's who we are.

Despite popular opinion, not everyone can be an effective teacher.  All educators can better hone their crafts and elevate their skills with practice, but I believe that people are predisposed to be teachers or they are not.  As a college professor, I cautioned my education majors that if they did not have a genuine passion for the discipline they selected, did not feel they could connect with all students, or were not willing to commit to a lifetime of ongoing training to improve their practice, they were choosing for the wrong profession. Teaching should be a mission and not a default career choice.

Sharing my journey with students has enhanced both my achievements and my fulfillment in life. I like it that I can write and entertain and use my strengths to enhance my teaching.  I am happy that my teaching achievements have provided me with opportunities to write and to speak.  However, when I look back on my many years as a classroom teacher, what I remember best are those precious "aha" moments with students, the shared laughter with them, feeling a genuine connection with them, and having students tell me, "Someday I will be a teacher just like you."  I don't think that everyone can or should be a teacher, but I always tell those who ask me, "If you feel the calling, you should definitely DO it."

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Response From Julia G. Thompson

Julia G. Thompson received her BA in English from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg and was a classroom teacher for forty years. As a seminar leader for the Bureau of Education and Research, Julia currently works with educators to determine the best ways to help challenging students.  Author of Discipline Survival Guide for the Secondary Teacher and The First-Year Teacher's Survival Guide, Thompson also provides advice on a variety of subjects through her Web site, www.juliagthompson.com; on her blog, juliagthompson.blogspot.com; and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/TeacherAdvice. You can contact her at [email protected]:

Absolutely. I just retired a few short months ago after being a classroom teacher for f-o-r-t-y years. Even though it's easy to feel overwhelmed by the intense and often unfair scrutiny that is aimed at educators and by ridiculously unhelpful advice from people who have scant knowledge of what happens in a classroom, teaching remains a noble profession.

How many other jobs allow workers to say that they made a difference in the life of a child? I always thought of myself as a missionary from the civilized, adult world whose job it was to show students that there is hope. That they can have a worthwhile future. That their efforts are appreciated. That they matter. Knowing that on some days, I would be the only person to speak a student's name out loud--and I made sure I said it with affection and respect--made the effort to get up, get dressed, and go to school worth it.

Research shows over and over again that, while at school, the most significant factor in a child's success is a classroom teacher. What a responsibility. What a burden. What a privilege.

Just think of what that research means. It is a classroom teacher who teaches a student to read, to do math, to cooperate with others, to think. It is a classroom teacher who protects students from bullies, and who is the first line of defense in the battle against racism, ignorance, and poverty. Every day classroom teachers with care and deliberation go about making the world a better place. No matter what, no one can take that away from us. What a joyful way to live a life.

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Response From Jenny Edwards

Jenny Edwards, PhD has taught at the elementary and middle school levels. She is presently serving as Co-Lead for the Infant and Early Childhood Development PhD program at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, CA.  She has written Inviting Students to Learn: 100 tips for talking effectively with your students (ASCD, 2010) and Time to Teach: How do I get organized and work smarter? (ASCD, 2014). She served as co-editor for Invitational education and practice in higher education: An international perspective (Lexington, 2016):

If I had to do it all over again, I would definitely still become a teacher! I would do it because of the reasons I originally went into teaching, as well the reasons that kept me in the teaching field.

I went into teaching because I enjoyed being with children and seeing their faces light up when they were learning. In addition, I wanted to influence the next generation. I felt that I had something to give children and their parents, and I wanted to do the best job that I could possibly do.

I stayed in teaching because of the many joys it brought to my life. I enjoyed watching the children's faces light up as they were learning to read. I used a method of teaching reading that made it easy to teach children to read (Mooney, 2014) in addition to a variety of other methods. I learned to determine what each child needed and provide it. 

I stayed in teaching because of the many opportunities to be creative in planning lessons. I had fun creating experiences for children to learn and carrying them out. I enjoyed experimenting with new ideas and watching the children's faces light up.

I stayed in teaching because I enjoyed creating a love for learning in my students. When I was enthusiastic about the lesson I was teaching, the students were enthusiastic. I was a salesperson of learning, and I wanted my students to buy what I was selling. 

I stayed in teaching because of the variety in the day. In schools, each day is different. Each day brings new challenges and opportunities to learn and grow. Each interaction with children and parents brings new possibilities for forming relationships and building people up.

I stayed in teaching because of the many opportunities to learn and refine the craft of teaching. I was passionate about attending seminars, learning new teaching strategies, and implementing them in my classroom. 

Most of all, I stayed in teaching because of the enormous satisfaction that I felt at the end of the day. When the children were gone and I looked around the classroom, I remembered the many events that had taken place that day and basked in the wonderful feelings of success.

References

Mooney, E. P. (with Edwards, J.) (2014). See me read: A phonetic approach for teaching beginning readers of all ages. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse.

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Response From Roberta Israeloff & George McDermott

Roberta Israeloff and George McDermott are authors of What Went Right: Lessons from Both Sides of the Teacher's Desk (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017)--a continuation of the conversation begun when they met as an 11th-grade student and her English teacher in a Long Island high school. Roberta is now Director of the nonprofit Squire Family Foundation, dedicated to encouraging the teaching of philosophy at pre-college levels. George, now mostly a writer, spends much of his time trying to figure out what's happening to public education:

Call us crazy, but the answer is yes, we would--more than ever. And not just because our country is facing a dangerous, nationwide teacher drought. Enrollment in teacher education programs has slowed to a trickle; entire programs are closing.  And no wonder. Teachers have never been held in lower esteem; in fact, they are being scapegoated and held responsible for an impossible list of societal woes. There's no money in it, that's for sure, and with tenure on the chopping block, no security. So what's left?

What's left is that some of us teach because we have to.  Because it's the way we discharge the debt we owe to our own teachers, and pay forward what we owe to our children.

And for us, in fact, this is not just theory. It happened.

We met many years ago, when Roberta was in eleventh grade and George was her English teacher. George left a couple of years later, and spent decades as a speechwriter and ghostwriter. And then, after thirty years out of the classroom, he did do it all over again: he went back to teaching, and it was a revelation. He hadn't been involved in the changes that occurred during the intervening decades, so he didn't experience them incrementally, like the teachers who stayed in teaching. Instead, the cumulative impact was like someone flicking a switch.

It wasn't the students. They were different, of course--different era, different community, different backgrounds, different challenges. But the crucial changes, mostly negative, were in the job itself. And those changes continue:

  • Funding is tighter than ever--not just for things like computers and video and smartboards, but for fundamentals like textbooks and copier paper.

  • Teacher evaluations are increasingly tied to standardized testing, so that teaching itself becomes increasingly standardized--call it "robo-teaching"--even to the extent of imposing scripted lessons.

  • More and more government entities are casting education as an instrument of social change and upward mobility--and thus judging teachers on their ability to accomplish what decades of speeches, sermons and legislation have not. 

  • Charter schools, voucher programs, and privatization initiatives proliferate--irrespective of verifiable, objective effectiveness--as if their mere existence is somehow a solution to the alleged failures of our public schools.

  • Teaching, which was once an underpaid but secure and respected position, is now much less secure and much less respected--but still underpaid. There are some school districts where teachers have been working for years without contracts or even nominal raises.

The result of all these continuing changes? They all argue persuasively against doing it all over again. Becoming a teacher is clearly a much less attractive career choice today.

But the same factors make it more important and more worthwhile. And more necessary. Like it or not, our public schools today are a reflection of what our society has become: a fragmented, contentious culture that trashes the core ideas of education--clear thinking, constant questioning, challenging assumptions. No campaign to "fix" American public schools can succeed if it's based on such an anti-intellectual platform.

So yes, we would do it all over again--and again. We would do it with the intention of becoming teachers who not only instruct, but also influence. It is teachers who must influence American schools to strive for flexibility, not standardization. For open inquiry, not didacticism. For intellectual vigor, not lockstep rigor. For asking questions, not memorizing answers.

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Response From Kara Vandas

Kara Vandas is an author and consultant, specializing in the Visible Learning Research and building student ownership of learning.  She currently works with teachers and principals at school districts around the county and is passionate about supporting educators in having the greatest impact possible:

Absolutely YES!  While the pay isn't great, the rewards and the outcomes are worth everything.  One of the most exciting things is to watch former students become teachers themselves!  Teaching is a precious and powerful opportunity to impact lives.  Wouldn't change my career for the world!

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Thanks to Debbie, Julia, Jenny, Roberta, George and Kara for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder--you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And, if you missed any of the highlights from the first six years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. They don't include ones from this current year, but you can find those by clicking on the "answers" category found in the sidebar.

This Year's Most Popular Q&A Posts

Classroom Management Advice

Race & Gender Challenges

Implementing The Common Core

Best Ways To Begin The School Year

Best Ways To End The School Year

Student Motivation & Social Emotional Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Project-Based Learning

Using Tech In The Classroom

Parent Engagement In Schools

Teaching English Language Learners

Student Assessment

Brain-Based Learning

Reading Instruction

Writing Instruction

Education Policy Issues

Differentiating Instruction

Math Instruction

Science Instruction

Advice For New Teachers

Author Interviews

Entering The Teaching Profession

Administrator Leadership

Teacher Leadership

Relationships In Schools

Professional Development

Instructional Strategies

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributers to this column.

Look for Part Three in a few days.

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