Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Stand and Deliver...but to whom?

It's no secret that there's a major problem with teacher retention in this country. Something like 50% of all new teachers leave the profession within five years. Programs like Teach for America and the New York City Teaching Fellows recruit thousands of highly qualified candidates every year, but a great number of them stick around just long enough to collect their subsidized master's degree before fleeing the profession for another.

There are countless reasons for this, but I'm starting to think that one of the problems is that teacher recruitment programs, in their slick advertising campaigns, give the naive impression that teaching is all about connecting with your students. "Picture their eyes lighting up when you explain electricity," reads the home page of the NYC Teaching Fellows. Teach For America's website informs us that "of the 13 million children growing up in poverty, about half will graduate from high school. Those that do graduate will perform on average at an eighth-grade level. You can change this."

I can? Sign me up!

Of course, there's a reason teacher recruitment programs have slick advertising campaigns. But most of us went to school and had teachers ourselves. We saw our teachers teaching our classes, and that was pretty much it -- remember the cognitive dissonance you were sure to experience if you ever saw your teacher someplace out of context, like the supermarket? We never saw the stuff that goes on behind the scenes.

And being a teacher in America today is so much about what happens behind the scenes. The trickle-down effect from No Child Left Behind to the Department of Education to our principals to our administrators to our teachers has meant more data collection, more structure, and more pressure.

I guess my point is that anyone who is drawn to teaching because they want a career that's All About the Children is naturally going to find themselves disenchanted with what's really going on in schools. I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels like if all I had to worry about was doing the best teaching job I could do with my students, I could rest easier than I do with all the additional worrying about my government, my administration, even my colleagues.

One of the (flimsiest) reasons I wanted to teach rather than entering another career was that after having gone straight from college to graduate school, I didn't want to start out in an entry-level position somewhere at the bottom of the totem pole. I was ready for responsibility and I was ready to be in charge of something, like a classroom. But at least at my school, very little of what and how we teach is left up to the professional discretion of the teacher in charge. I don't know how much of this is true of schools that don't follow the TC model, or if it's simply a sad consequence of high-stakes testing in general, but I see all these cool conceptual units at teacher websites and I think, "Well, I could never teach that, because I don't have the freedom to design my own unit of study." And I have more freedom than the classroom teachers do!

"Picture their eyes lighting up when you explain electricity." But are they the eyes of your students, or the eyes of your assistant principal? And guess whose eyes are going to have a bigger impact on your career?

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