I’ve had the privilege of working with pre- and in-service teachers for nearly 30 years, and my primary assignment at Northern Illinois University is to teach elementary school science methods. I love my job and the kids – wait, “kids” is not at all correct. One class, which I teach on-campus, has 27 “traditional” students, including 26 young women and one young man. The other class, which I run at the Rockford campus – a fairly new, overgrown one-room palace of a schoolhouse, has 20 “non-traditional” students, who are returning to school after working in other professions for, in some cases, three decades. These are line workers, Sunday school teachers, business owners, and moms, and they all want something better (well, not the moms – they want something different, now that their children are independent.). To be a teacher is to be something better. It is a profession with profound dignity, because there is no paying profession that is more important to a healthy society.But that’s not the message my soon-to-be-teachers get from our not-so-healthy society. Not the younger ones and not the older ones. These soon-to-be-teachers are being bombarded daily with the message that when good things happen, it’s because their students begin the year already prepared to learn, and when bad things happen, it’s because the teacher, in loco parentis, can’t do the job. The message is that teachers arrive at 8, leave at 2, go to the spa, have the maid take care of the family, and watch as the Teach for America students (and, after their 5 weeks of training, they are still, truly, students) show us how it’s done.We thought it couldn’t get worse, and then came No Child Left Behind. My student-teachers tell me that their cooperating district teachers do not have time for science and social studies; not with the tests looming. It’s all about the tests. The creative beauty that defines teaching is under heavy assault. So we have the beat-down about how easy the job is (Grading? What grading?), the cushy salary and benefits packages (How much did you spend on supplies last year because the district is broke?), the lack of passion for the job (Look at those Teach For America kids! You, too, can spend two or fewer years in the classroom and then earn six figures at Goldman-Sachs; it’ll give you cred as a minority affairs specialist!), and No Child Left Behind (Fill in your own tag line here: _______________________). And then, just when it couldn’t possibly get worse, The word that school teachers throughout the state are getting RIFfed! NIU is owed $55 million from the state. Layoffs may loom at my place too.So, what’s the view from my younger and older future teachers at NIU? Just what we’d expect. They are scared. Really scared. They will graduate in a year, and there will be no jobs. They will have worked for at least four years in college, paid, perhaps, $50,000 or more for their education, jumped through all the wild academic hoops (What other field has students write “reflections” about everything from their experiences in class to the price of sorghum on the Mercantile Exchange?), and their only mistake was that they love kids enough to want to help them give structure to the chaos that is this bizarro world in which we live.If only they’d wanted to be hedge fund managers.So what can I do as their teacher? I constantly remind them that their career aspiration is the best one. That they have dignity, and that the struggle to keep this dignity is part of the deal. Experienced teachers struggle every day, and they do keep their dignity, I tell my students. They know what they are about, and they know the impact they have on their kids. The state legislature, many in the public, all kinds of people will try to take away that dignity. But inside that classroom – that’s OUR place, whether in 2nd grade or at NIU. No one can take that away from us as long as we have our job. So our public school teachers struggle for their jobs. But they will maintain their dignity. This is what I tell my students. I believe this. And, in spite of the firestorm of slings and arrows they see hurled at professionals, so do they.
Well Paul, I think you see it as I do. Keep telling your perspective, and stay positive, you have a voice for sure.