Why Teachers Are Not 'Those Who Can't'

As a Princeton graduate, I'm tired of being told I'm wasting my degree. Don't our kids deserve the best?

By Emily Moore
Newsweek, April 3, 2000 
Naturally, I began teaching for the money. And the prestige. Who wouldn't want to stand around at cocktail parties listening to some puffed-up acquaintance on a six-month consulting stint drone "Yeah, I mean teaching is great and all. But what will you do next?"

 Shortly after completing my student teaching last fall, I applied for a summer job outside the field of education. The interviewer lit a cigarette and reviewed my resume. "Phillips Academy. Very good. Princeton! Good schools you've got. Magna cum laude. Thesis prize. Teaching experience: English. Teaching?" She looked up from the paper. "But you have such a good degree! Why waste it teaching?"

 I would like to say that nobody has asked me this before. That up until this point, I've had no need to defend my ambition. The truth, of course, is bleaker. So bleak that I am always ready with a response.

 "Who would you rather have teaching your children?"

 The interviewer sat back and took a long drag. "Well, I never thought of it like that," she conceded.

 We live in an age when people seem to lament the state of public education in the same breath that they dismiss teachers as "those who can't." I cannot count the number of times a well-meaning acquaintance has assured me that I am qualified to do other things besides teach. That, by implication, I don't have to teach.

 In fact, I want to spend my life teaching. I love teaching. And ritzy degrees aside, I don't think I will ever feel qualified to do it as well as I'd like.

 I feel extraordinarily blessed to have been called to a profession in which I am always learning. It is grueling, exciting, gratifying work. As a student teacher in New Jersey last fall, I looked out at my high-school students and saw a field of possibilities. I looked at their clunky boots and spiked hair and adored them.

 Naturally, there were downsides. On bad days, I felt I was preaching to a swarm of gnats. Yet as wretched as my students could be, it's been far more distressing to be told by adults that I have wasted my degree.

 There are notable exceptions. Fellow teachers have been nothing but kind, witty and encouraging. Without a fiercely funny, intelligent mentor teacher who believed in what she was doing, I never would have survived my student teaching. Many parents with children in the public-school system are deeply invested in recruiting and retaining gifted teachers. Yet there are people both inside and outside this public-school culture who continue to wrestle with assumptions about who is and isn't teaching, often arriving at troublesome conclusions: that teachers are poorly educated, ill suited for high-powered jobs, unwilling or unable to have more glamorous careers.

 Though it is decidedly unglamorous—I spent all three months of my student teaching exhausted and encrusted with chalk—teaching is deeply rewarding. In my classroom, there was nothing more exciting to me than witnessing a student write first a good sentence and then a good essay. Yet as victorious as I felt when a student nailed down a provocative thesis, employed a stellar verb or gracefully wove textual evidence into his or her paper, I was even more gratified to hear that I had touched a student personally. "She was the only teacher who didn't question my blue hair and understood the meaning of my having it," one student wrote in an evaluation. "I think you will be a great teacher someday," one of my more challenging students told me as I passed back his essay, "because you always make me feel like I'm doing good." I look forward to the day when teachers are as rewarded outside the classroom—with both higher salaries and greater respect—as they are within.

 Students, not teachers, may be the greatest beneficiaries of increased respect for educators. If insinuations that teachers are unqualified for other careers upset educators, these notions alienate students. I remember one afternoon proctoring in-school suspension. Eager to chat after a morning of enforced silence, a tall, gangly boy asked: "You a student teacher?"


 "Where from?" he inquired, his words reverberating off the dusty linoleum.

 "Princeton," I responded.

 "Princeton University?" he asked, flashing a broad smile. "Damn! What are you doing here? I mean, you could have been like a doctor or a lawyer or something!"

 "I'm here because I want to be here," I said, smiling at his sudden animation. "Don't you think you deserve good teachers?"

 "You know I deserve only the best," a sullen boy in the far corner cracked, raising his head up off the desk. As humorous as I found the moment, I could not help wincing at his irony.

Moore, who recently received her New Jersey State Certification in Secondary English, lives in New York.

© 2000 Newsweek, Inc. 

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