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“Do You Even Like Being a Teacher?”

“Why would Mr. So-and-So have chosen to be just a high school teacher? He’s so smart.” “I can’t believe That Brilliant Alumnus settled for being a teacher.” “Do you even like being a teacher? Like, I couldn’t do the same thing every day.” I know that when my senior students ask me these questions, they are not being malicious; they’re genuinely curious. I know they’re faced with choices about their own future careers, which naturally gets them wondering about how the adults in their lives got to where they are. I know this. But it’s hard not to make a few inferences–do my students think I settled? For a boring career? For one ill-suited to the really smart people?

It’s not altogether surprising, really, that students seem to perceive intelligence as something their high school teachers do not possess, or at least not to the degree that someone who works in a more respected, prestigious career field possesses it. After all, “Those who can’t do, teach,” amirite? Oh, Melissa, you’re being too pessimistic. Am I, though? Researchers from Brown University and Albany University recently found that: 

“The overall well-being of the teaching profession today is at or near historically low levels. Perceptions of teacher prestige have fallen between 20% and 47% in the last decade to be at or near the lowest levels recorded over the last half-century. Interest in the teaching profession among high school seniors and college freshmen has fallen 50% since the 1990s, and 38% since 2010, reaching the lowest level in the last 50 years. The number of new entrants into the profession has fallen by roughly one third over the last decade, and the proportion of college graduates that go into teaching is at a 50-year low.” 

So yeah. There’s that. We’ve been hearing about it in the education realm, grappling with it, searching for solutions for a while now. But here’s the thing: when these statistics come to the door of your own classroom, it “hits different” as the kids say. If there were not already dozens of reasons why being a teacher is harder today than it has ever been, hearing the waning interest in and respect for the field from the mouths of my own students, rather than from some distant news outlet or an Ivy League researcher, is a gut check. 

So, I want to take a moment to answer your burning questions, dear students. 

You asked me if I enjoy my work. Most days, HELL YES. Are there times the seemingly impenetrable apathy in the room is enough to suffocate me? Times I feel so inundated with lesson planning or providing feedback on a stack of essays that I scarcely have time to eat lunch? Times I rack my brain so hard to come up with something I pray will keep you engaged that I have no mental energy left when I go home to my own kids? Times the ratio between my work and my level of compensation feels so incredibly unbalanced that I contemplate joining a pyramid scheme? Also, HELL YES.

But these times pass. And when they do, they give way to the good stuff. I can understand why you may be under the impression that your teachers do the same thing day to day, year to year. After all, many of us teach the same lesson to you at 8:00 that we will teach to your best friend at 9:30. Many of us read the same novel with you that your older sister read in our class two years ago. So, okay. Maybe the words of Shakespeare, the “rules” of subject-verb agreement, the definition of “symbolism” do not change with every day–but what does change are the people who enter my classroom. The events swirling outside it. The way I approach a lesson or assessment. It doesn’t matter that every year, I will teach about modifiers, metaphors, and Macbeth. What I love most about my job is not what I teach; it is whom I teach. And that changes with every hour-and-a-half.

Your teachers have the honor of helping you learn about the world and where you fit in it, of piquing your curiosity and guiding you to answers, of walking beside you as you try new things and gradually backing off as you master them. Sure, we teach you y=mx+b and that the mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell. But what’s more–we teach you how to think. To problem solve. To struggle and succeed. To research and question and create. We teach you that you belong here. That we value you. That you have gifts no one else has, and that you can do amazing things because of them.

So perhaps Mr. So-and-So down the hall and That Brilliant Alum settled for chose this life not because they are suckers willing to take measly pay or because they must not have been able to succeed in any field that actually matters or because they just want weekends and summers off. Perhaps they became teachers because they know what it is to watch the eyes of a student who has just made a discovery, seen a connection, or sparked an idea. They know what it means to read the words of a young person finding voice through an argumentative essay or processing major life events in a narrative. They know the necessity of young people’s feeling nurtured, cared for, and valued in a place they spend eight-plus hours every day. They know that teaching allows them to impact humans who will eventually hold every profession, political office, and community leadership position of the future. They know.

Because you said it yourself; they’re brilliant.

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