eNotes Teacher’s Corner: To Teach or Not to Teach—That is the Question

Teacher’s Corner is a monthly newsletter from eNotes just for teachers. In it, experienced educator and eNotes contributor Susan Hurn shares her tips, tricks, and insight into the world of teaching. Check out this month’s Teacher’s Corner column below, or sign up to receive the complete newsletter in your inbox at eNotes.com.

Recently over lunch, a dedicated career teacher told me that she could no longer advise anyone to go into teaching; the joy is gone, she said, with teachers now locked into regimented lesson plans and required to spend all their time chasing test scores. She also worried about what we’re doing to kids in the classroom—demanding more and more of them at younger and younger ages. There’s no time now to let them be kids, she said, or color outside the lines, if they get to color at all. It was a depressing lunch.

I drove home with a lot to think about, especially since I had encouraged my own daughter when she decided several years ago to change careers, earn a second college degree, and go into the classroom. Had I steered her wrong? Remembering our animated conversations after she began teaching, however, I don’t think so. Teaching may be different today—the demands greater and the stressors more intense, but it still engages the heart and the mind in ways unlike those of any other profession. No two days are alike, and every day is a fresh opportunity to achieve something glorious, even for one unforgettable moment.

Students aside—and that’s a big aside—it’s true that our profession is less respected in some quarters than it once was, for reasons that seem to be bound up in politics and publicity. If a teacher is arrested for some terrible offense in any part of the country, it becomes national news; a steady drumbeat of these stories erodes confidence, creating the impression that teachers somehow have degenerated into an immoral lot, not to be trusted. On the positive side, however, every time teachers risk their lives or lose them trying to protect their students, which seems to be happening more and more frequently, their actions make the news, too. Ask the parents of those students if teachers can be trusted.

There’s also a lot of discussion these days about “bad teachers”; judging from what the public hears daily on the airwaves and reads online or in press releases, our schools are about to crumble under the cumulative weight of lazy incompetents in the classroom. Teacher tenure is under attack, with tenure laws represented to the public as guaranteeing lifetime employment for bad teachers; tenure, its foes allege, makes it impossible to fire all those bad teachers doing little while collecting large monthly checks. The term “due process” is rarely mentioned. Most recently, teachers have been stripped of tenure and the right to due process in California and in Kansas. Teachers in those states can now be fired not just for cause but for any reason at all, and stating a reason isn’t required. You can read about the California ruling at cta.org and about the Kansas legislation at washingtonpost.com.

Tenure aside—and that’s another big aside—teacher evaluations have become central in renewing or not renewing contracts, which brings us back to bad teachers. Supposedly, everybody can spot one a mile away. Defining what constitutes a bad teacher, however, is another matter. This article at teaching.about.com boils it down to seven deficiencies, six of which would apply generally to people in any line of work. Being able to relate to students and to inspire them is not mentioned, suggesting that it is often overlooked as a characteristic of a good teacher, even though it is essential in educating kids. Another discussion of good vs. bad teachers, which touches as well on the California tenure case, can be found here at sfgate.com. Currently, districts around the country, feeling political heat and racing for funds, are scrambling to rewrite evaluation instruments and practices to better sort out who’s doing what in the classroom, effectively or ineffectively.

According to Dr. B. R. Jones, author of The Focus Model, the increasing emphasis on teacher evaluations, combined with new academic standards and “next-generation” assessments (think CCSS), is setting the stage for a “perfect storm” in education. He contends that an “evaluation fix” is needed in many of the instruments now being written to assess teacher performance. Jones identifies four “distinct ‘potholes’” that could result in “serious damage” in evaluating teachers effectively:

  •          Using inappropriate evidence of a teacher’s quality
  •          Improperly weighting appropriate evidence of a teacher’s quality
  •          Failing to adjust evidence weights for a given teacher’s instructional setting
  •          Confounding the functions of formative and summative teacher evaluation

Everyone agrees we don’t want bad teachers in the classroom, but how to evaluate teachers, it seems, is also an area of contention in education. You can read Jones’s article at corwin-connect.com.

Our vocation, more than ever, is rife with conflict and controversy and voices raised in promoting personal, professional, and political agendas. Why would anyone want to be a teacher? Why would I encourage my daughter in her desire to leave a successful career and join the ranks? Obviously, I wouldn’t—unless I knew in my heart she would be a great teacher and would find in teaching the kind of fulfillment that only other dedicated teachers can really understand. She has asked for lots of advice along the way, and giving my children advice has never been a problem! Ultimately, I told her this: Close your door, do your job, and focus on your students; give them your best because it will make a difference in their lives, and don’t forget to enjoy them every day. So, to teach or not to teach? Regardless of whatever winds are blowing outside the classroom door, I say yes!

I’m not sure how it can be July already, but here it is. Have some fun in the sun!