Teaching is a Profession, Not a Job

Teaching is a profession. In The Game of Life—yes, the board game—teaching is one of the few jobs that you can draw only if you went to college, suggesting the job requires some amount of proper training and higher education. In real life—yes, the thing we are living right now—the idea that four years of college, with any major, is sufficient to begin a career as a professional teacher is growing more and more popular. After all, we all went through primary and secondary school to get here, so how hard can it be to teach it?

Surprise: Teaching is hard. Extremely hard. A teacher must not only be a master of the material but also an effective communicator, quick problem solver, constant innovator, social organizer, occasional therapist, and much more besides. It takes energy, ingenuity, insight, knowledge, and most of all, patience to lead a classroom full of kids. You must decide if you want 80 percent of your students to understand 100 percent of the material, or 100 percent to understand 80 percent. Sometimes you end up with zero percent understanding zero percent and you must go back to the blackboard and start over. Teaching has been described as one part preparation and five parts improvisation, and the preparation alone will take hours.

If teaching is mostly improvisation–making it up on the spot–don't most teachers learn in the classroom? Of course: Teaching is no different than any job in that must be perfected in practice. However, this is not 21 Choices, and a teacher's bumpy learning curve leaves an entirely different kind of bad taste. The stakes are higher than most cases, and many teachers are presumably guided by the desire to effectively educate children. Why, then, do they not take every possible step to ensure that the learning curve is as smooth as can be? Thus, it must depend on who they are teaching for, student or self.

I suppose I should take a second to lay out my personal connection to teaching, as my opinion is that of a singular person with a specific set of experiences. I'm a senior English major who wants to teach secondary English literature or English as a second language. Since Pomona College does not offer a degree in education (which is, in my opinion, the only time life should mirror the board game), I have been applying to residency and master's programs, all of which would lead me to a degree, certification, and more than two years in the classroom. I have also spent four summers teaching middle school-level English with the Breakthrough Collaborative in Manchester, N.H.

At sites across the nation, Breakthrough gives high school and college students a way to dip their toes into the waters of teaching and actually teach a class. Seven students made up my largest class, and the oldest student was maybe 12. Easy, right? Breakthrough is the hardest thing I have ever done. A week and a half of workshops prepared me for the first five minutes of class, and every summer was hours of revising lesson plans, talking with other teachers, talking with the professional staff, trying new things, and staying up late only to wake up at 6:00 a.m. to do it all again. Teaching is hard, and it is a highly skilled job that, for various reasons, we are now handing out to people who simply seem like they'll have the energy for it. They'll figure it out: Look how well they did in college! So what if it takes two years to become a decent teacher, not a good or even proficient one, and a few kids might slip through the cracks—at least these college graduates are teaching!

A recent op-ed by a college professor made this point far better than I have, so I'm going to steal from that. (Teaching is also two parts stealing, according to my eighth grade science teacher; no one can do it alone.) This particular professor has stopped writing recommendation letters for Teach for America for students who did not major in education. As she explains, you would not write medical school recommendations for students who have not taken biology classes, because they are completely unprepared for the operating room. Why, then, do we think that anyone without hands-on educational experience is prepared for the classroom? 

Teaching is a profession, not a job. Sure, teachers are underpaid and overlooked. The hours are long and the obvious benefits are few. You have to steal supplies from home to bring to work, only to have them stolen again. You have to give everything and expect nothing. And that takes more than just pure energy: it takes a solid foundation on which to build so that improvisation and learning in the classroom can happen productively.

Brendan Gillett PO '14 is an English major planning to engage in a career in classroom teaching after further schooling.