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Why Become a Teacher?

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You're a college senior at Cornell University about to get a bachelor's degree in history. You are in the top 20 percent of your class and you want to find a job you're passionate about and will gain you some respect in society.

You ponder your uncertain future, facing a bleak job market and a desire to do good and raise a family some day.

Should you become a teacher? Well, the pay is quite low and it will be hard to face your friends in five years at your first college reunion who will be newly minted lawyers and MBAs, making gobs of money on Wall Street or by billing $500 an hour to corporations or divorcing spouses.

As a public school teacher, you think to yourself, I will likely be making less than $50,000 per year, be looked down upon by my peers, and then, to add insult to injury, be evaluated and publicly ranked by a convoluted system that will crush my ability to truly motivate and inspire my students.

No, this isn't for me, you think to yourself. I may as well enroll in that Kaplan class and take the GMATs and apply to business school. I may not make a difference in kids' lives, but I will receive professional respect and will not have to worry about supporting my spouse and children.

This hypothetical interior monologue is likely to be played out on more than 2,000 college campuses throughout this country this spring. When we should be attracting the best and the brightest to public school teaching, like Finland and Singapore do, we are doing the opposite: by focusing on soulless evaluation policies and public degradation of the teaching profession, we are driving potential teachers further away from the ranks.

This is yet another reason why we are falling further behind globally in education. Elected leaders who have pursued ill-fated policies in education are now patting each other on the back for wearing down teacher unions and achieving teacher evaluation formulas that only insiders will fully understand and which, as documented in a recent published story in the New York Times, has led to 116 rubrics for evaluation that are flawed and miss the point.

What we need, immediately, is a plan for attracting inspiring teachers with passion and real pedagogical skills. We must train them rigorously before sending them into the classroom and then provide them with mentors for their first five years and give them a career path to become "master teachers" after a decade of distinguished service.

Like all professions, teaching needs a path for advancement and merit pay and an effective way to terminate those who do not progress sufficiently to be strong teachers. It needs mentors and master teachers more than anything so that inexperienced teachers can learn from the best in the profession.

I know all this from personal experience. Thirty years ago, I was that Cornell history major pondering my future. I did teach public high school for two years, and did not have the proper training or systematic mentoring to become a great teacher or even encourage me to stay in the profession.

I did have one great advantage though: an unconventional colleague, a 20-year veteran teacher took me under his wing and mentored me unofficially and made me realize what it took to become a better teacher.

During my first week in 1986 as an English teacher at Stuyvesant High School (my alma mater), a charming English teacher named Frank McCourt (later to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning memoirist) told me: "Get out while you can. It's five shows a day and the toughest audience you'll ever face."

He was being slightly cheeky, but his admonition was repeated by other battle-weary teachers there: pursue your passion, journalism, they told me. This is not a career that holds great prestige or financial promise for someone like you.

A peer who worked with me at the New York Times on weekends looked down at me condescendingly when I told her I was a teacher during the week at a public high school. "Why would you do that?" she asked with a mixture of pity and scorn.

But watching Frank McCourt light up the classroom (we combined our classes occasionally on Fridays) was a true delight and an enlightening experience. He was not worried about evaluations or teaching kids to a mind-numbing test. He challenged them to think, to describe the quotidian details of their lives (assignment: what did you eat for dinner last night? Describe in minute detail).

He made students write the most creative excuse notes they could come up with. Students wrote about their romances, read their work aloud, critiqued each other, laughed, and generally learned a heck of a lot about life, the importance of great writing and great literature and left his classroom eagerly anticipating the next day's lesson, passionately becoming real thinkers and real writers and real students of literature.

Today, the Frank McCourts of the world, if they even ventured into the classroom to pursue a teaching career, would likely be crushed by the new systems that evaluate teachers by rubrics that can't quantify motivation and inspiration.

This is what needs to enter the school debate -- how do we start attracting, and retaining, the next generation of Frank McCourts?

Tom Allon, a Democrat and liberal candidate for mayor of New York City in 2013, is a former Stuyvesant High School English teacher and now is the president/CEO of Manhattan Media.

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