I may be the wrong person to respond to the Sunday editorial, “Teaching changes can be beneficial,” as I began my teaching career as one of the “unlicensed and untrained individuals” KNEA spokesman Marcus Baltzell referred to. Fortunately, for me and for at least some of the more than 6,000 students I taught over a 40-plus-year career, I made the decision to teach after a brief stint in another career.
I studied social sciences and biology as an undergrad and wanted to work overseas with the U.S. government “helping people,” but circumstances deterred me and, as a young mother, I became a social worker with the Bureau of Children’s Services in New Jersey. My caseload was huge, and my time and energy were spread so thin that I felt I made little difference in their lives.
When a teaching position opened in junior high science class in suburban Trenton, I applied, and after a brief interview with the superintendent, I was hired on an “emergency” certificate on the condition that I take six hours of education classes. I chose Philosophy of Education, a riveting historical perspective on schooling through time, and Educational Statistics - not my favorite - that summer. (I had no education credits before then.)
My first year was, to say the least, eye-opening and a management circus. Had it not been for a colleague in the science department and a friendly librarian who unofficially mentored me, I probably would have quit. But I persevered, entered a master’s program in teaching, and by my third year, I had a pretty good idea of what teaching entailed. It certainly was not simply “to impart knowledge to public school students.”
There was no mention at all in your editorial of the caring, empathy and complete dedication a teacher must have to be successful and effective. My and my colleagues’ concern for the well-being and empowerment of our students overrode any emphasis on mere content. But we tried to make content meaningful and relevant and exciting.
In Manhattan, where I taught for almost 30 years in public school, I began a course on the ocean that eventually became my main teaching assignment and a lifelong passion. I didn’t have an oceanography major, but I learned every scrap of content I could by gleaning books and journals and attending professional organization conferences, eventually becoming one of the few public school teachers in the Midwest to teach this subject. Every summer for 20 years I took students — many of whom had never seen “big water” — to the coast to immerse them in the subject. I recognized, too, that some students weren’t fond of science (or math), so whenever an opportunity to incorporate the arts arose, I made an effort to give students a task where they could express themselves in some way that was personally satisfying.
Some of their efforts were peer-selected to be presented at an international conference in Puerto Rico! Others presented research findings at a Gulf of Mexico symposium, all expenses paid for by supporting corporations. Another group gathered data and presented at town meetings to encourage residents to rethink a dam proposal (which was eventually deauthorized), and another helped protect an island where eagles roosted.
A teacher doesn’t simply “convey knowledge,” and students aren’t just vessels to be filled. “Stand and deliver” is a shallow bromide, and STEM is not the only answer to what is lacking in our schools.
The worry that tenure protects inept teachers is overstated: it is certain, too, that a teachers’ organization would not support one who is unethical or criminal in behavior. Districts have their ways - sometimes downright mean-spirited - to rid themselves of “undesirable” employees who might otherwise need the protection of tenure. It isn’t so much the “ineffective” teacher but the politically outspoken one who will be ousted under the new regulations.
I entered the profession through the back door, credentialed well enough in several content areas, but naive about schools as places of culture and intense social interactions, vulnerable as well as gifted children, and collegial rivalries, friendships, and collaborations - and am glad I did. But it wasn’t easy or 9-5 or a mere job. One would hope that anyone coming from another field into teaching would be doing it for the right reasons and would be willing to dedicate one’s life to it and the students. When a student from 30 years ago comes running up to you with a big smile, throws his (or her) arms around you and shares a story from class from that long ago, therein lies the joy and the reward.