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The So-Called Right to Teach

The stories seem to be everywhere these days: Crisis-level teacher shortages and how to fill them.  Need-based fast-track pathways to the classroom, for those who just don't have the time or inclination to, you know, seriously study or practice the complex work of teaching. Questioning the need for teacher licenses or advanced certification. And tiresome, never-ending repetitions of the old "cash cow" canard--that universities invest little in education research, while allowing anyone with a pulse into programs that should be highly selective.

And now, a new catchphrase: The Right to Teach.

While the terminology is novel, the idea certainly isn't. We've been trying to do education on the cheap since Horace Mann rode around promoting the idea that it would benefit the nation to offer free schooling to every child.

We say we want good schools. We say we want an educated citizenry, and a well-trained, nimble workforce. We even say that we want equity, and justice, for our young.

But we don't. We want a simple, cost-effective solution for keeping children off the streets, providing them with basic literacy and introducing them to compliance. Teaching? A low-level jobs program for technical workers, who can follow a script and relentlessly pursue test scores.

Some so-called reformers are now openly backing away from even rhetorical support for equity, justice, honoring diversity and pursuit of integration. Maybe it's not so bad, they suggest, for kids to go to school with "their own kind." After all, solving the seemingly intractable problems of segregation (read: generational racism) and poverty are just "too expensive."

In other words, let's put poor minority children in for-profit schools with inadequately paid, untrained teachers and call it a day. To everything, churn, churn, churn.

In this country, we are fond of polishing our human rights bona fides--life, liberty, pursuit of something like happiness, or at least contentment. It's our absolute right to speak our piece in a public forum or on TV even if it's loathsome. We have the right to vote, to worship or not, to be treated fairly by the justice system, and to live in the way we see fit, as long as we're not impinging on anyone else's rights.

There are (or should be) other automatic rights--rights that feel pretty shaky, right now, in the best country in the world: The right to clean water, and food. The right to basic health care. The right to personal dignity, and safety.

There is, however, no "right to teach," in a public institution, for compensation. None. Nobody has the right to decide--hey! I think I'd like to work with children, mold their little minds. I'm smart! I'd probably be great--with no preparation or experience whatsoever.

At this point, most educators pull out the usual counter-argument: We license and certify all other privileges and skillsets, from driving a car to cutting hair, things that matter a lot or a little to the social order. Nobody wants an untrained pilot in the cockpit or an amateur bridge-builder constructing new interstates. We should at least put a threshold of demonstrated competency in place for all who want to be employed as teachers.

And that's true--as far as it goes. The "right to teach" and "teacher shortage" blah-blah masks a darker truth, however. We're not willing to solve problems--health care, clean water, racism, rampant childhood poverty, neglected schools--with hard work and investment in our collective future. It's not that we can't afford to solve these problems--other countries have made great strides--it's the will to put country and community before self.

Most of the "right to teach" propaganda spotlights examples like the fictional PhD in physics who would be forced to endure field experience before getting a job in the classroom --or the invented engineer eager to build a STEM program in a Detroit high school. Some legislators think those people should be offered more money than traditional veteran teachers, because--well, it would be insulting to treat professionals like teachers.

You seldom hear from people who have actually jumped ship from one professional career, taking their skills to the classroom. Because---people who actually do this quickly understand the demanding nature of making rigorous content understood by kids with other things on their minds. Teaching is complex intellectual work, completed under stressful conditions, involving a daily tap dance of motivation, illustration, compassion, humility, frustration and random glorious breakthrough moments.

I spent two years e-mentoring career switchers leaving successful stints in a major US technology and engineering corporation. They all had advanced degrees in math and science. They all complained about the hoops they had to jump through to become licensed. And they all--every one--were dumbstruck by the difficulty of the work, once they got into the classroom. Some quit immediately. Many had what might be called a personal crisis of confidence. Others were bitter. But they couldn't go back--their company had given them a bonus to quit. Because they had become too expensive. Ironic, no?

Teaching is not a right. It is a privilege, a challenge, an opportunity and an honor.

Anybody who wishes to pursue teaching ought to be willing to work humbly and diligently first.

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