Teaching: a Bad Fall-back Option

This week, an education major from a local university sat in my class for a day. This happens a few times per year, so schools of education can say that they have required their students to observe an “urban” classroom for 8 hours. She told me her friends were scared to come to the city schools. I laughed, and thought about how ridiculous the notion is that a few hours in a classroom is going to prepare anybody for anything. I offered her a student desk, but she opted to sit nervously in the corner behind a table. I worried silently, like I often do, about the inevitable reality that these same "scared" education majors will eventually be "scared" teachers of our students. I introduced her to my classes, and asked a few students if they ever think about teaching as a career.

The answer was painfully unanimous.

“God, No. Why would I do that?”

Someone forgot to tell me that teaching isn’t cool. I always lace up my leather shoes, pull out my awkwardly wrinkled khakis, and throw on a button-down shirt feeling like I’m LeBron James getting ready for game day. But I’m starting to wonder if I’m alone in that feeling. And the students that I teach are only confirming that suspicion.

Every day, I get to hang out with students who are on the eve of what feels like their entire future. They are awaiting college application responses, taking SATs, working after school, and feeling the pressure of thinking about what they might want to do for the rest of their lives.  Their dreams vary as much as the students themselves. Many students want to be nurses or doctors, some dream of the IT world and computer science, and others talk about engineering or law.

“What about teaching?” I sometimes ask.

“Oh hell no. I could never do that.” I always kind of laugh, but then think about the fact that most teacher prep programs are half-empty, and the half that is there is largely white. And then I worry because none of the students at my predominantly black high school are entering education.

It's shocking right? Somehow this awkward white guy and all of my awkward white teaching friends aren't making this gig look attractive enough for minority students to pursue as a career (To be fair- it would help if we were paid more, but that is another blog). I cringe knowing that the profession that I love and model every day seems like, at best, a bad fall-back option.

I’ve tried to be the cool teacher, to jump over desks and on tables, to dance unexpectedly in the middle of the classroom to cheesy Pittbull jams, to force myself into pants that are probably too skinny, and to make bad jokes about my non-existent muscles. And, even with the power of that persuasion, none of my students are taking the bait.

Teaching just looks boring.

This year, I actually have a student that I think could be the next Betsy DeVos. It’s not that she carries guns to school to kill bears, or really agrees with Betsy DeVos on anything at all, but that she definitely has the brain and the ability to be our boss one day. She thinks about things we should be doing differently, and how we should change our approach to make it work for more students. She is quick to point out that the model was built to work against her black peers. We get in great conversations about how the school system is fostering opportunity gaps for almost everybody who isn’t a rich white person. She is one of those students who helps me get better. 

And at the end of each of those conversations I say what seems like a normal response.

“Yo. You should teach.”

“God, no. I hate school. It’s just boring.”  

The problem blares on like one of those bad Pittbull songs: not many of our best and brightest want to be teachers. And, to make that problem worse, even fewer of our non-white students are getting into teaching. We have a country that is getting less white rapidly, and a teaching force that has barely changed.

We go to schools every day, especially in urban districts, in buildings that were designed for the educational models of 100 years ago. Innovation looks a little stagnant in rooms with dusty chalkboards and two electrical outlets. We allow gaps in opportunity, and appease our guilt by calling them gaps in achievement. We try to make it seem like it’s the students fault, and not our systemic failures. We push kids out of school and suspend for small things every day, and throw up our hands when they aren't reading. And if you are black or brown, we push you out at rates far outpacing your white counterparts. NAEP scores have not improved in the last 30 years, and we seem to keep doubling down on all of our failed ideas.

As my co-blogger Adam says, we “just aren’t casting a big enough net” for new educators, so we end up with people who liked school and did well with our current system. Then, we complain when people don’t like our model. If we want to do a better job at reaching some of the students who we are currently pushing out, we have to get some of those students into education.

So far, the best answer that I can come up with is to go to school, jump on desks, and try to make the best of all of this. But it seems like our students are seeing through the facade.