Given such realities, does it make sense to consider a career in teaching? I honestly think it does for a great many reasons. America’s teachers have always risen to the challenges of their times. Faced with massive changes to immigration and labor markets in the late 19th century, our schools opened their doors to many millions more students over the course of several decades and incorporated their education into their basic mission. When the Cold War and Space Race made Americans question our readiness for a highly technological future, our nation’s teachers helped lay the groundwork for the next 3 generations of technological progress, including space flight and the modern computer age. Given the challenges of implementing the victories of the civil rights movement and of mainstreaming children with disabilities, American teachers helped forge the next generations of American citizens who are vastly more accepting of diversity. If today’s challenge is to close the achievement gap and hold themselves to even higher standards, I have no doubt teachers are up to the job even if many current initiatives need to be (and undoubtedly will be) sent back to the drawing board.
Further, the nation simply needs teachers, and there are no trends in teacher employment that suggests this is going to change. In 2012, there were over 55 million children in almost 99,000 public schools and over 33,000 private schools nationwide. Public schools alone employ nearly 3.3 million people in full time teaching positions. However, that workforce is aging. According the Pennsylvania State Graduate School of Education, the number of teachers over the age of 50 is 1.3 million and the average retirement age for teachers is 59. The implications are obvious: we will continue to need new teachers at high numbers for some years to come.
Finally, and most importantly, despite our national arguments over education policy, the American people like and trust teachers. This may come as a surprise to anyone reading politicians and pundits who cast our nation’s schools as dystopian nightmares better suited to Dante Alighieri’s poetry than to educating the future of our nation, but it is of no surprise to me. In 2012, Kappa Delta Pi and the Gallup Survey published the results of their annual survey of the public’s attitudes towards public schools, and the answers affirm a long-standing trend: Americans are convinced our nation’s schools are doing poorly…except for those schools we know best. While only 19% of surveyed adults rated our national schools as worthy of a grade of A or B, a whopping 77% of parents give those same high marks to the school attended by their oldest child. Parents also recognize the positive attributes of teachers: 74% agreed that their children’s teachers offered praise and recognition within the previous week; 71% expressed trust and confidence in their children’s teachers; 63% agreed that teachers made work relevant to their children and to life; 84% believe their children are safe in school.
When it comes to teachers, familiarity breeds confidence, respect and trust which speaks to a fundamental truth cutting through all of the current politics of school: teachers work hard, care about their students, do good work and are recognized for it by the most involved constituency – parents and children. If you are wondering if you should become a teacher, this should do more than encourage you. It should energize and inspire you to contribute to one of the greatest ongoing promises of American democracy, our nation’s public schools.