Photo credit: Reuters/Evelyn Hockstein. From The Irony at the Heart of the War on Teachers
Three and one-half years ago, much of the world was on lockdown due to the first global pandemic in over a century. Through fate, good fortune, or dumb luck, I had retired from my day job in public education just a few months earlier. From March through June 2020, I watched as teachers were hailed as heroes – selfless public servants who spent long hours learning technology, working virtually with students, and helping parents navigate their children’s education.
Then the pendulum swung the other way. By the beginning of the 2020-21 academic year, teachers were vilified for refusing to return to their school buildings—many with outdated HVAC systems or poor ventilation—and teach students face-to-face prior to a COVID-19 vaccine.
The pressure to reopen schools was based largely on two arguments:
In-person learning is better for children’s social and emotional well-being than virtual learning is.
The economy will suffer further unless kids are out of everyone’s hair for at least seven hours a day.
Never mind that putting people back in schools would lead to the deaths* of teachers, students, other school staff, and countless people who lived with teachers and students: It’s the economy, stupid!
As the pandemic wound down and teachers willingly returned to their schools, they continued to be targeted by an “extremely vocal minority of voices.... supported by a web of dark money and right-wing operatives looking to exploit culture war grievances for political gain.” As a former elementary school teacher, I feel badly for educators who have to put up with this nonsense.
To be clear, the teaching profession wasn’t so great before COVID either. Despite my love for the best job I ever had, I left the classroom in 2005 and took a much higher-paying position in the central office in order to support my family.
In addition to being overworked and underpaid, public educators on the front lines face other challenges. Former teacher Angela Watson described her experiences more than a decade ago in Why I Quit My Teaching Job Mid-Year. But things are worse now. I had barely begun reading Teachers Who Quit Are Sharing The Moment They Realized It Wasn't For Them, And It's Much Darker Than I Anticipated before having to set it aside. The article was too depressing!
The title of this blog post is not original. When I googled “Who would want to be a teacher” (within quotation marks), the top results included the following articles and posts:
Most of the top results from my Google search—for example, the first three pieces in the list above—were written after 2020. Others, like the last one, came before the pandemic.
Why Would Anyone Want to Become a Teacher?
I’ve served on the adjunct faculty in the Department of Educational Foundations & Leadership (EFL) at Old Dominion University (ODU) in Norfolk, Virginia for the past 10 years. Until recently, every course I taught was at the graduate level, and my courses were either online or hybrid.
Retirement isn’t all that exciting unless I’m traveling or doing things I’ve never done before. Consequently, I asked the higher-ups in EFL to let me teach an undergraduate, face-to-face class. They lined me up with the perfect course – FOUN 302: Assessment of Learning (FOUN stands for Foundations of Education).
I was excited about teaching this class for several reasons. As my first real job since retiring, it was a good excuse to get out of the house twice a week. Also, I enjoy discussing educational assessment and had a captive audience to indulge me. Finally, I was curious as to why a young person would want to enter a profession in which working conditions have worsened. I would need to survey my students to find out.
After getting clearance from the ODU Office of Research to conduct a confidential survey with my students—with assurances that participation or nonparticipation would not affect anyone’s grade in FOUN 302—I created a brief questionnaire and administered it to volunteers after they had completed my final exam. Sixteen students answered the two questions on the survey, which were
Why do you want to become a teacher?
What (if any) are your main concerns about becoming a teacher?
With one exception, these students specifically mentioned students or children in their answer to the first survey question. All 16 of the respondents gave altruistic reasons for wanting to become teachers (e.g., “I can best contribute to society by teaching students with special needs,” “I want to have a positive effect on the lives of students,” “The world needs more teachers who want to see change”).
Seven of the students indicated a longtime desire to work with children or become a teacher; four of these students used the words “I have always” in their explanations. One student wrote, “It was my dream since I was little,” while another jotted, “It’s a continuous passion of mine.”
Interestingly, past experiences with teachers played a part in three students’ reasons for wanting to teach: “I come from generations of teachers,” “I had amazing teachers who helped me grow,” and “I want to be a teacher because I know what kind of teachers I had and they were not the best.”
In answer to the second question—What are your main concerns about becoming a teacher?—each student described at least one thing they were concerned about. Most of them listed multiple concerns. Here are the top issues of concern for the aspiring teachers in my FOUN 302 class:
Although I understand that the results of surveys with small, self-selected samples are not generalizable to larger populations, I have concluded from my students’ responses that a primary reason for people wanting to become teachers is the same as it has been for decades, perhaps centuries. An article published a few years before I began my career in education stated that “substantial research suggests that the teaching profession attracts men and women who desire intrinsic rewards and who approach teaching as a mission or calling.”
Becoming an educator was a calling for me and for many of my colleagues at Evansdale Elementary and Kittredge Magnet School, as well as for hundreds of other teachers I’ve known in the time since I left the classroom. I doubt if that will ever change.
*I was partially correct in my March 2020 blog post when I wrote “Worst case scenarios for the current pandemic indicate that the mortality rate of COVID-19 will not come anywhere near the rate of last century’s pandemic.” There were 675,000 American deaths in the 1918 flu pandemic, or approximately 0.65% of the nation’s population. By the middle of 2022, over one million Americans had died of COVID-19, or about 0.3% of the total population.