A Sense of Purpose and Direction

March 4, 2015

This week I was invited by a local community organization to speak at Career Night for a small group of teens. It was a first for me, and quite a different experience from other public speaking I’ve done. When I talk to teens, it’s usually as a teacher or advisor, and when I talk about the teaching profession, it’s usually to adults with some stake in the discussion. So, instead of preparing remarks about teacher leadership, evaluation, or career pathways, instead of talking about education policy or equity, curriculum or assessment, I had a much different set of questions to address – simpler in some ways, and in others, more difficult.

The simple part was talking about why I went into teaching, and what I enjoy about it. I think about that all the time, but it doesn’t often arise in conversation or in blog posts. If I were to rank my reasons for choosing teaching as a career, the top factors would relate to the process of education, helping students learn about learning, and having the opportunity to participate in a meaningful way in the lives of students and our community. But 24 years ago, when I had just decided to teach, the top reason would have been my love of literature and writing. I didn’t realize, at the age of 21, how much the priorities would switch. I still love literature and writing, and even then, also enjoyed working with teens in educational settings. But if for some reason I had to make a different choice back then, I would have chosen some other career using my English major background. Now, I’d sooner give up my subject matter and find another way to stay in education.

It was also simple to explain what I like about teaching. It’s working with students, seeing them learn, and seeing their personal growth. It also helps that every day is different. Every hour is different. It’s a career with a clear and important purpose, constant challenges, and great personal rewards that partially mitigate the issues of pay and social status. There’s a balance of independence and collaboration, and it’s a career where (given the right setting and resources) you can enjoy success on a regular basis.

The downsides were pretty clear as well: you experience failure on a regular basis, there are constant challenges, and for too many teachers, insufficient compensation and status. The worst part for me personally is the constant feeling (during the school year) that I have more work I should be doing — at night, on weekends, when I’m exercising, spending time with my family, when I’m at a movie or a play, almost always. That feeling doesn’t dominate my life or dictate all of my decisions, but it nags at me nonetheless. I do hope the teens in the audience were paying close attention though, noticing that every career speaker mentioned both positives and negatives.

Would I recommend my career to a teenager today? Naturally there’s not a one word answer to the question. Those of us on the panel weren’t even asked that question directly. Rather, we were asked about long-term trends and prospects in the career, and what kind of person might find it a good fit. I actually didn’t address the long-term prospects question because I didn’t think I could do it justice in the limited time I had. There are positive trends in professional learning, teacher leadership and career pathways, interdisciplinary pedagogy, and other things that make me excited about the future of the profession. But the current politics of education are often toxic, divisive, uncertain enough that I can’t be completely sanguine about our future.

Instead of delving into those issues, I focused on the traits that I think would help a future teacher: a passion for learning and improving, reflectiveness, resiliency, and great interpersonal skills. Among teachers you’ve known — as a student, parent or peer — can you think of an excellent teacher who didn’t possess those traits? That wasn’t meant to be an exhaustive list; you could certainly add more, but those were the primary ones I thought of in the moment.

Near the end of the two-hour event, the teens (and a few parents in the audience as well), had a chance to ask questions of the panelists. The only question that was directed at me was whether I would consider leaving teaching in order to earn more money. From the mouths of babes, right? I said that the more likely reason for me to leave teaching would be for professional leadership opportunities — what I would do, not what I would make. But I added that the overall state of teacher pay needs attention. Too many teachers struggle to make ends meet, and too many potential teachers won’t entertain the idea of entering education for such pay.

When the event ended, students approached some of the other career speakers with more questions. I loitered, chatted with a couple of the other speakers myself, and wondered if any of the students would consider teaching in the future. I still have enough years ahead that they could be my future colleagues, but no one came to talk to me. Oh well, I thought, it was a small audience anyways, and the guy who collected poisonous animals until going into digital design was pretty interesting. But then, by the elevator, I met two of the teens and one parent. There was a boy, maybe 15 years old, who hadn’t spoken up, but his mother thanked me for coming and, gesturing towards her son (I assume), said, “He wants to be a teacher.” I smiled and wished them all the best, and hoped that I’d been helpful.

I also hope we’re on the right path to enhance the positives and mitigate the negatives of teaching, to build a profession deserving of our dedication and worthy of our students. It’s up to all of us. Recognizing the essentials that brought us to teaching, and keep us teaching, might help calibrate our compasses and keep us heading in the right direction.

David B. Cohen, NBCT

David B. Cohen is a National Board Certified English Teacher and the Blog Editor of The Standard. Cohen taught high school English for 12 years in Palo Alto, Ca. For several years, Cohen co-directed a teacher leadership network called Accomplished California Teachers (ACT). That experience gave him opportunities to learn about and work with teachers from all over California. Having worked with a variety of other networks and organizations, and having built relationships with individuals and groups around the state, Cohen is currently working on a book about excellence in California public education. Follow him on twitter @CohenD.