Saturday, July 10, 2004

College Students Who Want to be Teachers

Talking about school reminded me of one of the big petty annoyances I dealt with in college. It was the sheer number of students who, if you asked them what kind of career they were going to pursue, told you they really wanted to teach.

This wasn't just a few individuals. I made a habit of asking a lot of students this question. What did they want to do with their life? There were a lot of honest I don't know's, plenty of artists, a few doctors - but an overwhelming number of teachers.

I never said anything at the time, but I'll say it now. Bullshit. I am enormously suspicious of any college student who wants to be a teacher. Here are the reasons.

1. There are about... (counting on both hands here) a bajillion different jobs out there. Really. A staggering number of professions, paths, avenues, career choices. The average student has never spent much time with, say, a seismologist or a patent lawyer. They haven't hung out with the Coast Guard, they've never seen the inside of a fertility clinic, they've never sat in a city council meeting. They have, however, logged in thousands of hours observing teachers do their work.

Am I supposed to dsimiss as a complete coincidence that the one profession you've spent about 20,000% more time with than any other just happens to be the one you yourself want to do?

If a kid grows up on a potato farm, miles from anywhere, and you ask him what he wants to be when he grows up, and he says "I want to be a potato farmer"; do you think maybe, just maybe, he hasn't totally thought through all his choices?

2. These college students I think had a romanticized notion of the teaching profession. Most teachers teach sixth grade Spanish, or fifth grade math, or gym. They don't sit around having lively discussions of Tennyson. They don't take class trips to New York City to see the Bolshoi. They won't be teaching string theory to a packed auditorium.

They'll be spending 25 minutes of each period trying to get the
class to shut up. And they'll be paid a pittance for it.

3. I think there's a strong psychological component to a college student's desire to teach. Teaching is a power trip. In that stuffy little room filled with twenty people, one person is presumed to know more, one person can tell the others what to do. The teacher is in control. The teacher is wise and respected. I think that has a powerful appeal to students, who at this point in their life have never been in control of anything.

I believe that teaching, for a select few, can be a real calling. For those who have a calling to teach, it doesn't really matter whether you're the embattled 5th grade teacher, or the tenured Ivy League professor. Because the calling is about helping the next generation. That's why it's a noble profession. It's selfless. Instead of taking what you've learned and blazing a trail in the real world, you stay in academia and help to prepare other people to blaze the trail. It's honorable.

Now how many of those college students were thinking about the sacrifice and hard work of teaching? Not many. They were fantasizing about all that respectability, all that prestige. They daydreamed of eager college students coming to *them* with the tough questions. They deliberately ignored that off-campus there was a world with thousands of other possibilities. They displayed a stunning lack of imagination.

Now most of these people did NOT become teachers. They went on to other things. But if there are any college students reading this, feel free to ask your classmates what they want to do as a career. If they say teacher, feel free to downgrade your opinion of them. Ask them about what 4th grade subject they'd most like to teach. Ask them what size they think is ideal for 9th grade homeroom, and what tactics they'd use to control a hostile class.

Bah! I say.

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