When I was an administrator at the University of North Carolina I had the opportunity to meet some very influential people at various functions. Some of them were personal heroes of mine like John Hope Franklin, who I actually met at a function at Duke, but most of them were plain old millionaires that had given, or were going to give money to the University. At one such function I began talking to one of the big donors and the subject of public education came up.
After listening to me give him a tour of the ills of the current public school scene he asked me what I would do if I had access to unlimited funds to fix the problems. I thought about it for a few minutes and then told him first I would institute a fund to retrain failed teachers and help them get employed in other careers.
He seemed shocked by my response, but I would give the same answer today. Put yourself in their places. You went to college for four to five years studying both your subject matter and pedagogy. You did your student teaching for at least a semester. You endured the interviews to get hired and now you find after a few years that you hate teaching.
Your colleagues probably told you when you had doubts after that first year that you would get used to it, that the first few years were always the hardest. So you stuck it out. You have now got five years of service under your belt, are invested in the retirement system, have not paid off your student loans. How can you quit?
When I first left public school teaching for higher education I used to speak frequently at high schools about a range of subjects from history to diversity to the joys of learning. I had to stop because invariably, at every school before the students could get to me to ask post speech questions, at least one teacher would come up to me and ask, “ How did you get out of the classroom?”
One woman told me that she hated teaching so much she was not sure she could return to her classroom after the assembly was over. It was amazingly depressing.
I never intended to leave public school teaching. I quit to get my masters and the Xenia system did not offer me my job back after I finished. A local college did offer me a job. I loved teaching public school, loved my kids, intended to go right back after I graduated. I used to joke with the kids and tell them I was going to teach until I dropped dead at my desk because it would give the students something interesting to talk about at lunch.
These failed teachers are, mercifully, in the minority, but they are able to do quite a bit of damage if and when they choose to take out their misery on the students. It happens too frequently. If you were to interview public school teachers the honest ones would tell you that they are teaching alongside at least one or more teachers who should not be teaching.
When I was doing educational research back in the late 90s, I always took note of what the teachers I interviewed called the students. The good ones always said “my kids.” They did not say “the students” or “the class” or “the kids,” they said “MY kids.”
I want all teachers to think of their students in that way. All of my students were my kids, a lot of them still are.
Dr. Cookie Newsom is a retired teacher-professor. Contact her with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.