How Teaching Has Been Devalued--From the Inside and Out

by David McGuire

At 24, I began my career as a classroom teacher in an Indianapolis high school—a school that had been failing students for many years but was being turned around with new management and new staff.

After spending the previous two years after college battling with the internal struggle of taking on such a demanding and rewarding profession, I finally decided to make the leap. I quickly realized why so many teachers get upset with the profession, either quitting or burning out too quickly. I decided to channel my frustration in a way that allows me to make a difference, but I still think there are so many ways we could do to elevate the profession and make it more appealing for new graduates and experienced professionals alike.  

Here are the top five things I would like to change about education and teaching:  

1. Teachers are demeaning their profession from the inside.

Every profession has its bad apples, but it seems as though the teaching profession’s bad apples are the most vocal. We have all heard about the toxic teacher's’ lounge where you can walk in and hear teachers complaining about their students, principals, or other colleagues. I remember one memorable lunch in the lounge, when a teacher spent 29 minutes complaining about her last period class and mentioning specific students by name. The whole conversation was overheard by a new permanent sub on her first day on the job, who soon learned that the class the sub would have after lunch was the same one the teacher complained about so strongly. Needless to say that was her last day at our school.

2. Schools have made it easy for teachers to be replaced.

My biggest frustration is how schools make it easy for someone to stand in front of a class and deliver instruction to students. It seems as though teaching is the only profession by which someone with a college degree and with no criminal background can take over a classroom. During my first year teaching, we saw a constant stream of turnover in our earth space science class down the hall from my language arts class. Literally every week there was a different substitute teacher in the class, and many had no training in teaching techniques and no knowledge of science outside their own high school courses.

Every teacher that we put in the classroom would quit. It got to a point where we would recommend a friend we knew was looking for a job. If you do not believe me, then obviously you have never worked in a dysfunctional school. I have witnessed firsthand when schools don’t hire qualified people to teach—they just fill in a position with any warm body. Most of the time the people we put in the classroom had no interest in being in front of students; they were just looking for a paycheck.

Can you imagine this happening in the medical or legal profession--putting a “substitute” divorce lawyer in charge of a big criminal case, or asking a “substitute” pediatrician to do heart surgery?

3. Teachers are not respected as experts.

I have a colleague I considered a classroom expert because she had the ability to get the best out of every student in her classroom--easily connecting and earning their trust and convincing them they were special students. I loved how she could get the most disengaged student and have them locked in and actively participating in her science class. Despite her gift, her worthy suggestions often fell on deaf ears in the school.

Teachers for the most part know what is best for schools and what is best for children. Teachers who are committed to their craft and their children possess far more knowledge than someone who has never spent time in the classroom—but is rare to see teachers consulted as experts when it comes time to make changes big and small to a school or a district.

4. Teachers do not realize the power they have to change students’ lives.

I had a teacher who showed me the impact a teacher can have on the psyche of a young man. As a fifth grade student at Eastbrook Elementary in Pike Township in Indianapolis, I was a talkative and energetic boy. Often times that is the behavior that gets described as disruptive or ADHD and can often lead to a diagnosis that sticks with students all through school. In addition, to the special education label, these are the students who sent out of class for being disruptive. My fifth grade teacher, Mr. Lloyd, did not let that happened to me. He defended me and told other teachers: “There is nothing wrong with him. He is just a young man who has a lot of energy.” It was this support from Mr. Lloyd that inspires me to this day to be patient and understanding with my students who are a lot like that fifth-grade me, and to see their behavior as “energy” not “disruptive.” I can become their advocates in the same way Mr. Lloyd was my advocate.

5. Teachers need to be leaders in their classroom and in their communities.

When my parents were growing up, teachers were community leaders. This was because the teacher had taught the parent and then taught the student. Teachers took pride in the communities where they taught. In return the communities took pride in their teachers. Teachers were regarded at the same level as pastors.

Speaking with retired African American teachers in Indianapolis they all tell me that I have to be more than a teacher. I look at their community involvement, whether it is through the local chapter of the NAACP or the Urban League, and it was clear they were invested in the social issues that impacted the community. Recently I joined the Indianapolis Urban League, and that experience has already opened my eyes to the community issues that I can use in my classroom and discuss with my students.

There is hope out there that the damage done to the teaching profession will be repaired and more and more people will flock to the profession. I have helped launch an initiative here in Indianapolis called the Educate ME Foundation. Our foundation is geared towards increasing the number of minority teachers by creating a pipeline from high school to college to eventually classroom teachers.

I have seen cities across the country investing in growing the teaching profession. In places like Madison, Wisconsin their newly launched TEEM program (Tomorrow’s Educators for Equity Madison) is geared towards increasing the pipeline of teachers by focusing on high school students.

We can restore the prestige and honor in teaching that seems to have been lost over the years in the teaching profession if we just remember this truism: “Teaching is the profession that creates all other professions.”