The Incredible Disappearing Teacher
Why I tell bright young people to avoid a career in education.
Every semester, a handful of shiny young adults ask for my advice on the best graduate programs in my field. They’re mint in box. The world hasn’t taken them out to play with yet.
We all know, it will.
They want me to help them become teachers, which means writing letters of recommendation and helping them develop teaching portfolios.
Some of them are master’s students looking to move on to doctoral programs, and others want to work in public schools. Either way, I tell them to do something else. Anything. Just not teaching.
Consider the word pedagogy. It derives from the Greek word paidagōgos, literally a slave who took children to and from school.
The profession hasn’t changed much since then. We serve at the pleasure of privilege. The 21-year-olds who come to me aren’t completely naive. They don’t think it’s all about accepting apples and staying after class a few days a week. They know it’s a service-oriented field.
But they don’t know everything yet.
“You’re too smart to waste your life teaching,” I say to them now. Then I recommend other lines of work, like fast food and cafes.
Maybe they should go to law school. Or start a pet grooming business. Or become an Instagram model.
They look at me confused. “But aren’t you a teacher?”
Yeah, and lately I’ve felt like I wasted my life. Especially my youth. I could’ve become almost anything.
Instead, I spent my 20s digging a giant hole of student debt, climbing into it, and then burying myself in student papers. All my hard work could very well culminate in nothing. Even tenure doesn’t do much good if your institution decides to kill your program as a cost saving measure.
Teacher burnout and attrition
This isn’t how I feel all the time, but more often than I did a few years ago. The irony is I used to think burnout would never happen to me. But here we are. More importantly, my new mindset doesn’t fit with the mission of my institution. Not their official one.
It doesn’t jive with the national agenda, either.
Officially, I’m supposed to lie to aspiring teachers. Tell them how great and noble the work is. Say things like, “You’ll never make much money, but you’ll love your job.” Screw that. I’m not doing that anymore.
It’s irresponsible and unethical for me to keep lying to aspiring teachers. My job is to help them, not to feed our nation’s need for a cheap, disposable workforce of professional babysitters.
We do so much more than that. But few people acknowledge teaching as an actual profession that requires advanced training.
Here’s the consequence of taking teachers for granted: We’re currently in the midst of a nationwide teaching shortage, one bound to get worse. A 2016 report by the Learning Policy Institute estimated that we would soon see shortages of 100,000 and more by now. That number will grow to 300,000 or more without major policy shifts.
Despite teacher strikes and nominal salary increases in a few states, not much has changed. Big surprise.
Anyone can teach, right?
Almost everyone thinks they can teach, because they’ve never seen quality instruction in action. This myth alone might explain the root of our problems. It creates a vicious cycle of decreased funding and increased testing. Many politicians on state and federal education committees don’t have a college degree, but they make laws about how we should teach.
We have a secretary of education now who’s never taught a day in her life. That’s not all too surprising. What does stun me? How many people think her lack of teaching experience counts as a plus.
The double standard can bend your mind. Companies insist on obscene salaries and bonuses to recruit “top talent.” The administrators of school boards and universities parrot this logic, until the moment someone mentions paying teachers more.
Everyone thinks they can teach. So it becomes a devalued profession. If anyone can do it, then why pay them more?
I’ve harped on this point before. But soon, we’re going to see the real results from decades of stagnant teacher pay.
I’m seeing it myself now. I just can’t bring myself to encourage more people to join my profession.
Teachers on food stamps
The average person simply can’t make a living as a teacher anymore. Not even as a professor. Your only chance is to gun for a top position at a research university. That means placing all your eggs in a little basket, then throwing your basket off a building and hoping it lands in the bushes.
Universities don’t hire generalists anymore. Only specialists. When you finish your PhD, especially in the humanities, you’re actually qualified for about ten jobs. I’m only slightly exaggerating.
Odds are, you’ll accrue about $50K in student loans. So as you enter the job market, you’re also racing against your debt clock. Payments will kick in soon, and if you don’t have a job, you’re screwed.
Also, you have to be willing to move anywhere.
I’m not joking. I applied for jobs in North Dakota. No offense to anyone who lives there. I’m sure it’s great.
Aspiring teachers protest. “But you turned out all right,” they say. That’s when I have to tell them the truth. I didn’t turn out all right.
I’m digging myself out of debt by freelancing on the side. If I weren’t writing, I’d be tutoring, or waiting tables on weekends.
Or driving for Uber.
Public perception vs. reality
The general public thinks professors make a ton of money. If you google “professor salary,” you’ll find averages anywhere from $80–$150K. But averages are misleading. Faculty in economics, business, or engineering make almost twice what I do.
The average professor in the humanities and social sciences barely makes $50K a year. When you factor in student loan debt, then you can start to see why we don’t recommend our line of work anymore.
High school teachers fair even worse. Their average salaries hover in the mid 50s, but we already know averages lie. You have to look at minimums and maximums for a true portrait. That’s when you see that many teachers in states like Oklahoma, Texas, and Missouri make $30K or less. That’s why so many teachers in these states went on strike mid 2018.
A world without teachers
Boohoo, I guess. It was my mistake. How foolish of me to think I could make a living by teaching people how to read and write.
I’m sure plenty of people would like for me to shut up. They think I have no right to complain. If I don’t like my job, then I should quit.
That argument works if you’re in the private sector. But most of us concede at least some value to education. You might think education has become corrupt, and I would agree. But teachers have never been the core problem. Some of us might do a bad job, but the crisis is systemic, and stems from fundamental problems that nobody wants to admit.
Teachers are underpaid. Under-valued. And micro-managed to death. Actually talk to a teacher for ten minutes, and you’ll understand why we face a shortage, and possibly the next great cultural crisis.
Take a few minutes and imagine a world without teachers. It could actually happen. Maybe it needs to. Maybe the only way to fix education is to reach a point where almost nobody’s willing to teach anymore.