The title of this article is misleading. I entered my teaching career with worn and tattered faith in the field. Being jaded before the start might seem like the wrong way to come to a profession. In truth, I might not have tried to teach had I harbored more respect for teachers and teaching.
As a teenager, my aspirations were low. College seemed like a scam to my teenage mind. I didn’t feel I needed to chase a degree. People did this to get jobs. They sought jobs because they wanted money. They wanted money so they could surround themselves with possessions and security that didn’t interest me. I figured I could adjust my expectations and skip the formalities. At the urging of friends and family members, I applied to one school. I got in. I applied for financial aid. I got a grant and a scholarship. Without a better plan, I gave college a try. I stuck with it long enough to get a degree. Choosing to get this degree in education was a default. I didn’t know what else to do.
What drew me to teaching was how accessible it seemed. I got this sense from my experiences with those who taught me from elementary school through college. As conceited as this may sound, I figured I couldn’t be any worse at teaching than any of them had been. Stated another way, I thought if these people could manage to become teachers and make it through each year without getting fired, so could I. They inspired me, but not in the way they may have intended.
My faith began to disintegrate during elementary school. From there, the rest of my story becomes a retelling of what prevented me from finding it again. Between 1st and 4th grade, I had a succession of teachers given to shouting at children. As a child, I found this odd. The oddness wasn’t just that they chastised students for being loud by yelling at them. The true oddness was that they seemed so bothered by the antics of children. One large male teacher berated his students, becoming frothy and red in the face when doing so. He resorted to insults and sarcasm, neither befitting of an adult paid to teach 9 year olds.
The anger in these teachers convinced me that they were no different from the adults in my family. This disappointed me in two ways. First, I had little respect for my family members. Several had tempers that frightened me while others had a propensity for lying. I found myself wondering how my teachers behaved when they weren’t at work. They might have been under less stress and thereby happier. In contrast, they might have been less reserved and even more hostile. Noticing parallels between my family members and teachers led me to the second disappointment. I had accepted this notion that teachers held a special position in society and that they had earned it by being exemplary in some way. As I noticed how easily they became angered and how much they resembled my family members in this, my teachers became mortal to me. To a young person, this was profound. More revelations were to come.
My stepsister was a decade older than me and attended a local university. When I was in 6th grade, one of her college friends got hired as a substitute at my elementary school. This disturbed me. I knew my stepsister’s friends. These were not smart or wholesome people. I’ll admit being somewhat shocked that a school would hire one of them. Already unimpressed with my teachers, I now saw them as being older versions of this young woman. I was generalizing unfairly. I was assuming too much about competency in relation to behavior outside work. Nevertheless, the impression lasted.
Throughout high school, I scratched my head at how teachers could get away with slacking the way they did. I watched teachers fall asleep during class. A few teachers screamed at students with much fiercer ire than I’d seen in elementary school. I recall a newly hired teacher coming to school with hickeys on her neck. She told us to keep busy while she sat at her desk and essentially passed out. Too many of them couldn’t be bothered to exert an effort. Some couldn’t be bothered to show up. Even as an adolescent, I wondered how people who got the summer off could miss so many days of work. Along the way, I had some dedicated and respectable teachers, but I had at least as many who phoned it in. No, high school did not restore my faith.
College was worse, but in a different way. I’ll admit the quality of my instructors improved. A few were terrible, but a greater proportion was at least competent. My college years shredded my feelings about education not through my professors, but through my classmates. Unsure about a major, I went with the suggestion of a friend: special education. I’d been working with developmentally disabled adults at the time, so I was familiar with the population. My friend convinced me I’d be able to get a job. If I was going to leave with a degree, I reasoned it should be in something that made me employable. I finally declared my major. Next, I met my peers. I watched them trample my broken, crumpled faith and kick it into the wind.
I’m not brilliant. If I were, I probably would’ve found something to do other than teaching. However, the people in my undergraduate education classes indirectly explained so much to me. I shook my head at how vapid they were, all while piecing together answers to long-held questions about the education business. Why should anyone be surprised at the state of public education when these smiling fools were the ones running classrooms? Many, perhaps most of these people were going to become teachers. Parents were going to entrust their children’s education to the rather dim bulbs sitting around me. I realized the people around me were the successors of those who had taught me. I also realized that teaching mustn’t be especially demanding, or maybe the entrance criteria weren’t. My pedestrian coursework reinforced this. I found myself alarmed simultaneously by the quality of teacher candidates and the low threshold for admission to the field.
I ended up graduating and getting a teaching job. My enthusiasm wasn’t exactly gushing. Prior to accepting my first position, I looked for something else to do. Finding nothing suitable, I sighed and went with teaching. The job was at a large urban high school. No one wanted to be there. Everyone from administrators to students wore a scowl all day. Teachers hated their jobs. Many hated their students. The supposed professionals in the building were at constant odds with one another. I thought this tension was a symptom of this dysfunctional school, but I found similar tension in every subsequent school in which I worked. Some had it worse than others, but I never found a place that cultivated high employee morale for long.
Along with low morale, I noticed every school was teetering on the edge of an organizational disaster at every moment. Another illusion of youth is that teachers and principals are in control of what is happening throughout the school day. Working in schools, I realized much of the time, no one really knows what is going on. Communication between professionals is shoddy, decisions are made on the fly, and much of what happens is an afterthought or reaction rather than an informed choice. Over and over, I found myself embarrassed to be associated with the organizations that employed me. I repeatedly had to apologize to parents because of something a school did or didn’t do. I struggled to look outsiders in the eye when I explained to them what I did for a living. I had no faith to give me confidence.
I guess I knew all along. Disheartening experiences confirmed my bleak assumptions. Each time some aspect of public education let me down, I acknowledged I had been right. I didn’t enter the field to improve it. My belief that the field could be improved was gone years before I started in earnest. Because of this, I saw the field as an opportunity to collect a professional salary while having scant skill or expertise. I entered because I figured the field would have me without much effort on my part and because I couldn’t do anything to further discredit it. Maybe I’m discrediting it now by revealing my experiences and sentiments. If so, I don’t feel I’m doing anyone a disservice. They have done that themselves.