As a newly immigrated adolescent in the late ’90s, I attended a public middle school, then went on to a public high school. It may have been 15 years ago since I graduated from high school, but I can remember a particular teacher named Mr. Harvard, who taught choir and band (RIP, Mr. Harvard) and who made a profound impact on me, so much that when I began college, I decided to major in music… only to realize that I couldn’t read music. Eek. So my plans were thwarted to another “artsy” subject–apparel design, then finally graduating with something more practical that my mom would approve called “a business degree.”
These days, I am an accountant, a position that I never really saw myself doing, mainly because I didn’t know any accountants in my circle of family and friends (or families of friends) and thus I didn’t know what they do, and how I would go about seeking information on their jobs. What I did know a lot of, and was exposed to, were teachers. Now that I think about it, Mr. Harvard was an incredibly passionate teacher, perhaps the only one that I’ve ever met in my entire life, who loved music, and extended that love in the classroom every day. He was a jolly man who were prone to give big bear hugs and had a big, boisterous laugh. You couldn’t help but love him. He was an extremely likable person. Clearly, he chose the right profession, I thought.
So when I found out that he died several years ago, from post-surgery complications, when he was just barely 40, I was incredibly sad. I wrote a letter to his family, telling them about the impact he made on my life and of so many more out there who they may not know.
Mr. Harvard is a rare breed of teachers in the overall scheme of public school teachers. I recall other teachers that I had in high school, the majority of which did a fine job, but overall was not as enthusiastic about teaching as Mr. Harvard was. It’s the kind of enthusiasm about teaching that truly resonates with the students, for it is one thing to be a good teacher, but another thing to be an enthusiastic good teacher. Many of us don’t come across enthusiastic good teachers. I was one of the lucky ones.
That’s why I was disheartened to come across three recent articles about teachers in America. The New York Times magazine dedicated an issue to education, and in one of the articles, What Teachers Are Doing to Pay the Bills, I read about eight teachers who are working a second (one works a third) job to pay the bills, because their teaching salary is insufficient to cover living expenses. In another feature by Time magazine, I read two more stories about teachers, this one and this one. The solemn faces of 13 teachers are profiled (why 13, an unlucky number, I don’t know), standing or sitting in their dark, grimy classrooms (or hallways) provides a reflection of the current state of teachers in America.
To add to the depressing tone of the articles, almost all of the teachers profiled appears crestfallen and sad, like they’re about to give up teaching, period. Only three are smiling, and I wonder how many of those smiles are actually genuine.
This is the kind of media coverage that would put me to shame if I were a teacher in America. As someone who has seriously considered teaching as a career (as a kid, I admired my teachers greatly, and would always answer, “A teacher,” whenever an adult asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up), I feel a personal conflict with how teaching has evolved over the years but also how it’s perceived as a career. Teaching is a noble profession, and those who chose it have varied reasons, but can all agree that they value education greatly. However, stagnant wages, rising living expenses, and battles over state funding are the reasons for why our educational system is failing to retain good teachers.
It’s a shame that the media has chosen to portray teachers this way. Surely, certain facts are not being disclosed. We ALL know that teachers don’t make a lot of money, and that they have to deal with the politics of unions, benefits, and compensation that makes it difficult to teach, but at the same time, these people chose the profession in the first place, knowing full well that they will never get rich from teaching.
Certainly, it doesn’t help to profile the most depressed-looking teachers in America. So what happened?
I think in general, teaching became a depressing career because as a country, we don’t regard teachers as highly as we regard other people who are also public servants, such as police officers, firefighters, and military. We don’t have a solid system in place to recruit and hire the best teachers (even the “best” system for hiring teachers, Teach for America, still relies on recent college graduates with no prior teaching experience). There are no hiring bonuses, reduced tuition programs, free housing, or reductions in other costs, as evident in the nursing profession. The only thing offered is a student loan forgiveness program for five years of teaching at an inner city school. It’s no surprise then that a lot of teachers quit within the first five years.
I’ve always regarded teachers as people who deserve a high level of respect, simply because they are public servants. Teaching is one of those difficult professions in which one can say, “If someone doesn’t do it, then who will?” Without teachers, who will prepare the future of America? Who will lead the kids who will eventually grow up to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, artists, businessmen and journalists who will write these articles? I wonder if there will any future Mr. Harvards?
Shame on these magazines, really. Shame on them.