Why Do People View Teaching as a 'B-list' Job?

It happens a lot: I'll introduce myself to a group of people I don't know well, explaining that I'm a high school English teacher. And someone will invariably respond, "But you're smart, what do you really want to do?" As backhanded compliments go, that one really rankles. What I find most irksome isn't even the implication that my colleagues and I are typically mundane or that my work of the last decade has been a waste of my time. The most frustrating thing about hearing that I'm "too smart" for teaching is the counter-productive mentality about my profession that such a comment underscores.

In the early half of the 20th century, a bright woman's best career option was to be a teacher. Now, thankfully, most every path is open to women, the only downside of which is the inevitable matriculation of top female graduates away from the field of teaching due to a plethora of other choices. This trend is compounded by the fact that teaching is now seen as a B-list job: Most top graduates of my college went into law, medicine, business, or academia. Those who did go into teaching, myself included, constantly encountered the assumption that this would be a short-term gig, the ubiquitous two-year foray (through Teach for America or the like) that would ultimately pad graduate school applications. For many, it was. Teaching wasn't, and – 10 years later – still isn't, seen as a "prestigious" career, even by liberal university graduates who would all agree that strong public education is an inviolable social good.

The irony is that the same people who feel very comfortable with the idea that teaching isn't a job for smart people, who cavalierly advise top graduates to pursue more lofty aspirations, will then decry teachers for not doing their jobs well enough, or myopically assert that under-qualified, ill-prepared teachers are responsible for the problems in education today.

In the current culture of education reform, the emphasis on "accountability" means teachers are the ones called to the carpet when students lag in math, language arts, and science. Think about the recent US reform programs – No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core – each of these assigns teachers the sometimes Herculean task of raising students to a certain point (as determined by test scores or grade-level standards), while failing to ask certain crucial questions: How are we recruiting and preparing the people who educate our children? How can we attract the best possible cadre of well-educated, intelligent professionals, who are up to a task of this magnitude? And how can we make them feel valued enough to stay?

According to a 2010 McKinsey study, the world's top-performing education systems – South KoreaFinland, Singapore – have this in common: 100% of teachers come from the top third of the college graduates, which (along with good working conditions, ample training and professional development, and higher salaries) promotes a culture wherein the teaching profession is viewed as selective and prestigious.

In America, 23% of teachers come from the top third of their academic cohorts, and a mere 14% of those go on to work in high-needs schools, where arguably there is the direst need for talent. In the same study's survey of top graduates' attitudes towards teaching, only 66% of respondents agreed with the statement, "I would be proud to tell people I had this job", and only 37% agreed that "people who have this job are considered successful".

Note that I am NOT saying that the myriad problems of American education are due to low-quality teachers, or that smarter teachers would automatically yield higher student test scores. Endemic child poverty, low school budgets, the lack of alternatives to a traditional college-prep track, and a dwindling valuation of education in our culture – these are all equally important reasons why American schools are falling behind their global counterparts. What I am saying is this: the business of educating children cannot be under-valued in importance, and one part of a multi-pronged solution to the American education crisis must be a large-scale effort to recruit and keep high-quality teachers to the classroom.

How can we do this? We can make entrance to education schools more competitive, require strong content-area credentials for prospective teachers, provide meaningful training and professional development, and raise teacher salaries. But above all, the prevailing mentality about teaching must be overhauled. American education is in crisis, and student outcomes across the nation are in dire need of improvement; it is counter-productive to denigrate the occupation of the very people tasked with bringing about these changes, and to discourage our top graduates from entering a profession where their talents are sorely needed. Discussions of teacher accountability can only proceed meaningfully once the profession itself gets some respect.

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