Thursday, May 28, 2015
"I'm thinking about being a teacher ..."
A former student--from fairly recent years--stopped by the other day. He's thinking about becoming a teacher (American history, perhaps) and wanted to talk about it.
He's got some choices to make, of course. If he wants to teach in a public school, he's got to get certified to do so--and that means more undergraduate courses or, perhaps a better fit for him, an MAT (Master of Arts in Teaching).
If he's not interested in public school, well, most prep schools don't care about teacher certification and will gladly hire young people who are willing and able to do a variety of things--not just teach. (Schools all have so many "slots" they need to fill.) I think prep schools would find this young man appealing for a variety of reasons--he attended one, he's a little older (he'll be 25 by the time he graduates, and schools like maturity that's inexpensive!: they'll be paying an "older" man a beginner's salary), he's had some international experience. And, of course (as they'll quickly discover), he's bright, committed--all the virtues one hopes to find in an educator.
I didn't listen to my parents very much when I was in college, but the one piece of advice I did follow was to get my Ohio teaching certificate--just in case my grad school plans didn't work out. Which, of course, they didn't. I was admitted to the American Studies program at the University of Kansas, but they offered me no money (I didn't really deserve any at that point), and my parents had made it very clear: The money stops with college graduation. My mom actually said (was she kidding?), "It's possible we'll invite you for dinner after commencement--but don't count on it."
So ... only months after I graduated from Hiram College in 1966 (in the interim, my parents did feed and house me--whew!), I started teaching at the Aurora Middle School for, you know, just a year or two. Turned out to be about thirty. To my great surprise, I discovered I loved it. Loved it. And I soon went back to grad school--nights, summers--and earned my Ph.D. in 1977. Afterwards, I often told my students (who were curious about this "Dr. Dyer" stuff) that I was the useless kind of doctor. And that they understood.
The other day, I told my former student that getting teaching jobs in 1966 was easy: There was a shortage just about everywhere. (If your breath steamed a mirror, you were in.) I applied for three, steamed three mirrors, and got three offers. Aurora's was the first, so I took it. I think it's got to be getting easier now, too: The Baby Boomers (like me) are all retiring.
I spoke with him a bit more about the Dark Side of teaching in public schools these days--the Testing Mania that's vitiating the curriculum and having all sorts of other deleterious effects on schools, on kids, on teachers. (I've said before: My fourth-grade grandson has already taken more standardized tests than I did, K-12.) Proficiency testing was in its infancy here in Ohio when I retired, and I cannot really imagine what it's like now to teach while shouldering the vast weight of the results of paper-and-pencil tests. Asked to bear such a burden, Atlas would do far more than shrug.
But public school teaching has some advantages: salaries, benefits, early retirements (all won through union struggles--most prep schools are not unionized). I was able to retire at age 52 (and did so) and have been collecting "gov'munt handouts" since January 1997. This has enabled me--while still somewhat healthy--to travel, do a lot of writing, and even to return to teaching (at Western Reserve Academy--just two blocks from my house) for ten additional (and wonderful) years. It's also financed the medical care that became critical late in 2004 when I received my prostate cancer diagnosis. I am still receiving treatments, and without that insurance, we would now be bankrupt.
Prep school salaries are generally lower--benefits too. But there are advantages--at least in my case: smaller classes, fewer classes, kids who (usually) want to be there.
Given the current test-or-die climate in public schools, I'm pretty sure that if I were in my early twenties right now, I would not pursue that career. I'm not sure what I would do, though. Journalism is not the attractive profession it once was (newspapers are dying--and those that remain alive are shriveling). Perhaps some writing program somewhere ... but then what?
But I want talented young people (like my former student) to go into the profession. Bright, committed young teachers can bring hope into our classrooms. And inspiration. They can show our kids that learning is exciting; that curiosity not only doesn't kill cats, but it animates humans; that turning the page of a book is among the most wondrous experiences in life ... What will be there? And what will it mean for me?
I'm not sure what my former student is going to do. But I know he's excited, that he has the necessary hunger. Here's hoping he'll find the food that will always delight but never fully satiate.