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Why Teach? Here Are the Best Answers Experts Could Give

In a fast-moving panel discussion at George Washington University in Washington, a group of educators joined U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Monday in an effort meant to convince attendees on the merits of teaching.

"Convince" is the operative word; the panel started with the assumption that the teaching profession is not the most attractive of options. Michael J. Feuer, dean of GWU's Graduate School of Education and Human Development, said policymakers need to find out "how to make teaching as enticing as hedge funding."

Yet while the panel discussed some of the central challenges of teaching, it was ultimately pressed for time and didn't explore all of them. For example, the panelists didn't go into detail on testing, or value-added models of teacher evaluation, or testing, or professional development, especially for things like the Common Core State Standards (which were barely mentioned), or testing.

In addition to Duncan and Feuer, the panel also consisted of: Joiselle Cunningham, a 2013 U.S. Dept. of Ed. Teaching Ambassador Fellow; Jen Bado-Aleman, the Hispanic Heritage Youth Awards Teacher of the Year for the D.C. region; Kate Gaskill, a GWU graduate student, and Bill Day, the 2014 D.C. Teacher of the Year. Jeff Johnson, a BET commentator, moderated the panel.

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For the last question to the panel, Johnson asked each guest to come up with a 30-second pitch for why to enter the teaching profession, given its well-known challenges. They highlighted four reasons:

Diversity: Student populations tend to be much more diverse than the teaching profession. According to federal data, 40 percent of K-12 students are not white, compared to just 17 percent of teachers. Cunningham noted what message she thought it sent when a black child enters a STEM classroom any given year and only sees white teachers.

Empowerment: Not in the sense of holding authority over your students, but in the sense that teachers, helping to shape the nation's youth—and the nation's future—push themselves to improve.

Challenge: Teaching doesn't lack for professional difficulties (reread the first few paragraphs of this post if you've forgotten). But there's also the challenge of finding ways to ensure all students are learning, the panelists said. That might be especially true for those teaching students with special needs, or English-language learners, or students just starting the class year behind their peers.

Fulfillment: There were a few dozen easily quotable snippets from all the panelists about how great it is to know that you're reaching a student, and how rewarding it is. That doesn't put food on the table, they noted, but it feels really good.

TEACH.org hosted the panel. The organization is an initiative by the Education Department in collaboration with Microsoft and State Farm, although its advisory board is a veritable who's who of big policy players, including the American Federation of Teachers, Council of the Chief State School Officers, National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, National Education Association, National Network of State Teachers of the Year, and Teach For America. The organization's website lays out a variety of ways to enter the profession based on the user's level of education.

Johnson started the panel by asking the audience who was already a teacher, and who was interested in being a teacher, and only a dozen hands went up each time, out of an audience of about 150, made up mostly of students and media. He didn't ask again at the end of the event, but maybe something the panel said struck home.

For more from the panel discussion, check out the Twitter hashtag #makemore.

Image: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan assists George Washington University students to sign pledge cards promising to learn more about a career in teaching. Source: Ken Cedeno Photography

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