More than 20 years ago when I decided to change career from engineering to education, I remember vividly being questioned about my decision. My colleagues didn’t understand why I needed to waste time in a teacher licensure program (even if it was in a fast-track alternative pathway for career-changers). “You already have your PhD,” they said.
When I began teaching in an inner-city public school, someone commented that I changed my career so I could go home at 3pm every day! The biggest disapproval came from my late mother Ruby, who was a kindergarten teacher herself for many years in Hong Kong and later in Malaysia. Back then, she was trained in three weeks. “I had to teach because there weren’t many choices for women then,” she said. “Now you could do anything and you still choose teaching!” Bless her heart; it took her many years to accept my calling to make a difference in the lives of our future – our children.
Unfortunately, the many underlying misperceptions and biases about the teaching profession still exist. I believe we can work together to change them, and support teachers of color and American Indian educators in pursuing the teaching profession.
In recent months, I have been in discussions and inquiry with Dr. Joaquin Munoz, Assistant Professor of Elementary Education at Augsburg University, to understand the current narrative, discourse, and perceptions about the teaching profession among the general public, particularly in communities of color and American Indian communities.
A couple of recent experiences include the following:
- A teacher candidate in my multicultural education class this past fall was told by family and friends that she was too smart and her GPA was too high for choosing a teaching major.
- An African American teacher was discouraged at youth from becoming a teacher by family and friends because of their own negative experiences.
Dr. Munoz and I are also interested in the inner dialogue manifested in public by educators ourselves. We shared some of what we heard, read and experienced from others in the teaching profession, including these key “patterns”:
- A Teacher of the Year finalist commented that she is learning to stop herself from saying “I am just a teacher” when asked what she did for a living.
- When a goal to regain respect for the profession was discussed at a recent meeting, a teacher/teacher leader muttered under his breath, “It will never happen.”
- Media coverage in recent years has shown veteran teachers and retirees discouraging others from entering the profession.
This is part of what Dr. Munoz calls the problem of “self-loathing” in the teaching profession, as described in his most recent blog post, “The Nature Of Self-Loathing.”
As I reflect on my professional career that spans multiple sectors, it struck me: When I was growing up, teachers were like “god” – there was a particular reverence about the profession that is lacking today, especially in the USA. Yet, if we consider a future we wish to create now for generations to come, with an engaged citizenry ready to change the world, I truly believe teaching is still one of the most noble profession. Even if it is a profession often taken for granted, or blamed for the ills of society. “If we only fix teachers …”.
When it comes to future careers, important professions are making strides to capture student’s attention. For example, there is a growing push by Greater MSP, ConnextMSP, the state of Minnesota, and other employers to connect youth to future employment in the many career fields such as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and healthcare. Employment development in these areas along with efforts in recruiting and retaining talent, are helping to diversify the workforce of Minnesota and grow our global economy locally.
Yet most of these efforts do not mention, let alone include, an important and powerful workforce sector: preK-12 education.
This is at a time when the data is absolutely clear – we have a teacher shortage in Minnesota, particularly teachers of color and American Indian teachers. Enrollment into teacher preparation programs has declined over the years. The education sector, and teaching in particular, is not in our students’ radar prominently as other career choices.
As I look toward to goals of 2018, the above insights are shaping our vision for our TeachMN2020 campaign and our ongoing efforts to reframe the teaching profession and diversify the educator workforce.
Yes, efforts to better prepare and retain teachers must continue. Transforming conditions for culturally responsive teaching and learning is critical in order for both teachers and students to thrive together. At the same time, we need to work across sectors to elevate the teaching profession in two ways, especially within our communities of color and American Indian communities:
1) We need to transform public narrative, public perceptions about the profession. We must “upgrade” our outdated, unexamined views on the profession. We must provide airtime and visibility as we do other respectable professions. It will take all of us: Parents, business owners, community leaders, and more, to pay attention to how we talk about teaching.
2) We need to support educators, and teachers in particular, to reclaim our power, our sense of agency and our “command” of the profession. We need to rebuild our confidence in what we do day in and out in service of our students as we bring out their brilliance.
At MnEEP, we are working with partners to accomplish both goals. Stay tuned for our official launch of our new web site “Imprint,” a public interactive space dedicated to elevating the teaching profession. This space will showcase the stories of teachers, particularly teachers of color and American Indian teachers, and uplift the work of teaching.
This will also be a unique space with tools and resources for those with a passion for creating positive change to consider (and even try out) making an imprint on the communities they serve through teaching.
We invite you to join us in our movement to elevate the teaching profession – inside and out!
Rose W. Chu, PhD