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Teachers Push Back on Criticism of Their Profession

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Nancie Atwell, the revered educator who recently won the $1 million Global Teacher Prize, sparked a firestorm last month she said that she would discourage "smart, creative" young people from becoming public school teachers today.

Atwell said that the profession had become too "constrained" by the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and schools' emphasis on standardized tests.

The comments on our original post on the story included voices on both sides of the debate--though our informal poll on the matter came out strongly against recommending teaching to young people. Some commenters praised Atwell for speaking hard truths about the profession that reflected their own experiences. Others said she had misinterpreted the intentions of the common core and that discouraging talented young people from going into teaching was no way to changing education policy.  

Atwell herself later qualified her remarks, saying she encouraged young people to consider teaching as career but also wanted to be honest about the challenges teachers face today.

Like our readers, edu-bloggers have had mixed reactions as well.

Over at Real Clear Education, Dan Brown, a former teacher who is now Executive Director of the Future Educators Association, called Atwell "dead wrong." He argued that while he recognizes that teaching comes with challenges, encouraging "brain drain" from the profession is counterproductive.

The teaching profession is not all roses and sunshine, but let's create a more perfect union, not stand back and declare failure. Kids need models, not martyrs in their classrooms.

It's a hard and necessary effort to elevate the teaching profession--improving every stage of a coherent continuum from aspiring educator to accomplished practitioner. Encouraging a brain drain from the public education system--no matter how frustrating the current moment may feel--moves this effort in the wrong direction, at great expense to us all.

In Huffington Post, Sean McComb, 2014 National Teacher of the Year, agreed. He said that while he understands why so many educators welcomed Atwell's comments, teachers should be working to save the profession:

Whether you're outraged by Atwell's stance because we desperately need more creative, smart young people teaching and inventing promising futures, or you applaud the comments because they highlight the current challenges of the profession, what we need now is the same--engage in improving the profession. That helps to solve both issues.

By contrast, in a response to Brown, Nancy Flanagan wrote on the Teacher in a Strange Land blog that Atwell's critique of modern education was "exactly right":

Teaching in America has been systematically de-professionalized. It's no longer a job where experience, mentorship, and creativity are valued. The evidence around that--beginning with test score-based teacher evaluation, and ending with federal funding for Teach for America--is incontrovertible.

Atwell's "I encourage my students to look at the private sector" remark was not the meat of what she was saying. In cherry-picking that single sentence, Atwell's real message--public-school teaching has changed, due to top-down policy-making--was obscured. Any teacher who's been in the classroom for more than a handful of years would feel that. In their bones.

Then there are the responses that fall somewhere in the middle. At the Center for Teaching Quality, English teacher Deidra Gammill says that Atwell deserves more credit than the critics are giving her:

I don't believe Atwell was trying to discourage anyone from becoming a teacher. I believe she was acknowledging the facts. Our profession suffers from a 40 percent attrition rate. Teachers face possible job loss as they strive to do what's best for their students. Without the right conditions in place, even the best new teachers will falter; perhaps even leave their classrooms.

On the K-12 Contrarian, education professor and former teacher Dave Powell makes the case that Atwell is right about the "straitjackets" being put on teachers--but he also realizes that for him, they don't matter when it comes to encouraging future teachers.

I also believe that teachers are the key to finally turning the tide of school reform. No matter how many parents opt out, no matter how many politicians come along to lead from behind, no matter even if billionaires start lining up to pursue a genuinely better approach to making good schools--I'm convinced that teachers will have to lead the effort to make schools better. ...

And when I'm thinking that way, I think: it's well worth it. I want my best students to become teachers, and I want them to understand and appreciate the complexity of education.

Finally, Education Week staff writer  Evie Blad points out that for some would-be teachers, all the negative advice in the world might not make a difference:

This reminds me of the arguments many older reporters had with me and other whippersnappers when we decided to become journalists, "We love it, but don't do it," they said. The news industry is changing rapidly, they told us, plus the pay is low and the work is hard. After a few years at a daily newspaper, I realized all of those things were true, and I also realized that I loved the job anyway.

When you get down to it, for a lot of teachers, it may not be the challenges of the profession that matter, but the rewards. That's something that Atwell would likely agree with.

Image: Nancie Atwell accepts the Global Teacher Prize, along with Bill Clinton, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai, and Varkey Foundation founder Sunny Varkey. Image courtesy of the Global Education and Skills Forum 2015.

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