In one month, I will start a Master of Arts at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, participating in the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP). In one year and one month, I will be a teacher.
I used to say that teaching would be my final career. I had always loved working with students and thinking about learning, but I thought the best teachers were those with twenty years of career experience in the “real-world.” To teach while young would be silly — what would I share, and why would kids listen?
Sometime last fall, I changed my mind. Working for Education Elements, I had spent over a year speaking with hundreds of superintendents, principals, and teachers across the country. I worked with them to implement an instructional philosophy called personalized learning, which focuses on the way in which students are given ownership over the path, pace, time, and place of learning.
I realized that the best teachers were not wise sages with encyclopedic knowledge of a specific subject, but those that could facilitate experiences that left students feeling simultaneously challenged, supported, and inspired. Perhaps you’re saying “duh.” Seems like an obvious thing, but seeing that truth firsthand transformed teaching into a profession I might enter sooner rather than later.
At Education Elements, I was a sales professional, so when I say “worked with educators,” you should read “sold consulting services to educators.” Yet sales at Education Elements felt atypical, in a good way. I was encouraged not to sell but to listen and ask good questions. I spent my time understanding the challenges facing school districts and discovering whether we could help.
While selling, I collected stories. Stories about inspiring students, brilliant teachers, and provoking new teaching techniques. Stories about bus driver strikes, school shootings, and political fights. Stories about hope; stories about despair.
There was one story that I heard wherever I traveled: we need more teachers. And we need better teachers. Or, if not better teachers, different teachers.
Whenever this story was shared, it was always with disclaimers. Superintendents and principals were the first to assure me that teachers work extremely hard, have endless passion, and are doing the best they can. Yet in the same breath, they would admit that it’s not enough.
There is a national teacher shortage, at a time when the profession is radically changing due to internet technologies, demographic shifts, and tumultuous national politics.
According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Instruction, the annual number of candidates enrolling in teacher education programs dropped 31% between 2009 and 2013. The numbers have only worsened since then, with the problem being serious enough that many states are looking to countries like the Philippines and Puerto Rico for new hires.
Teacher shortages vary by state, but I know that my current home of the San Francisco Bay Area is struggling to find qualified candidates. My old home of Arizona is reeling. A few weeks ago the Morrison Policy Institute from Arizona State University published an white paper dedicated completely to this subject. Its title? “Finding & Keeping Educators for Arizona’s Classrooms.”
It’s important to recognize that these shortages also vary by subject and race. According to a 2016 Learning Policy Institute report titled “A Coming Crisis in Teaching?”, 48 states are in need of special education teachers, 42 need math teachers, and 40 need science teachers. In terms of race, only 27% of teaching candidates identify as non-white, while nearly 50% of American students are non-white. The statistics should be concerning for anyone passionate about the STEM fields or ensuring that educators understand the cultural backgrounds of an increasingly non-white population.
Ironically, I’m not helping the statistics much. I’m a white cis-male planning to teach high school English and *hopefully* English Language Development. Yet I love storytelling, communication, and language; my heart wouldn’t let me teach any other subjects — at least not to start. Regardless, I believe I can have an important impact on student achievement.
On average, student achievement in reading and math on the NAEP tests is higher than twenty years ago but did not improve between 2013 and 2015, the most recent years for which we have data available. More concerning to me are the large achievement gaps that still persist between different racial groups. For further exploration, Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis has some great graphical tools for exploring racial and ethnic inequalities in education.
Source: Stanford CEPA
While not conclusive, there is cause for concern about U.S. student achievement, our achievement gaps, and the number of candidates entering the teaching profession.
These statistics and stories didn’t inspire me to be a teacher. They were, however, an important backdrop as other experiences clarified the career path I wanted.
Prior to Education Elements, I spent two years researching how Arizona state policy supported (read: didn’t support) English Language Learners as they re-entered mainstream instruction. I also spent a summer in Mexico City documenting how technology was affecting Latin American education systems. These opportunities validated the growing suspicion that my first career would be in education.
I was still uncertain about my trajectory, however. By summer of 2015, after having considered numerous education research roles, I opted to pursue a sales position at an education consulting company, Education Elements. Like I mentioned, even by my second week, I was having conversations about education reform and classroom transformation with education leaders around the country.
Yet after one year, I was daydreaming about the job of a superintendent. A position at the intersection of education, policymaking, and community leadership, it appealed to me.
Given the long road to superintendency, my mind wandered to more immediate options. I began to daydream about having my own classroom, wondering how I might set up a personalized learning environment. How would I help kids read what most interested them while creating collaborative projects? How would I teach kids from different backgrounds about both classic literature and the modern narratives of Buzzfeed, Snapchat, and Medium? How would I prepare students for the ever-shifting professional and personal demands of the future?
Feeling the perennial fall pull of graduate school deadlines, I resolved to apply to STEP. If attending Stanford, I could continue to live in Redwood City and stay involved with the community organizations that I had come to love. I could also have a reflective time to unpack my suitcase of sales stories in an esteemed practicum-based, equity-oriented education program. And, I could “walk the walk” by learning to teach.
Somehow, I was accepted. More importantly, I’ve decided to go.
I’m in education for the long-haul, and much to the chagrin of my October 2015 blog post titled “Must I Teach?”, I’ve decided teaching is the best possible primer for understanding how we should, as a movement, make the systemic reforms our schools need.
I also want to experience and scrutinize a teacher credentialing program. I want to understand what the top academic professors in the country are saying about the teachers we need. I want to try implementing the instructional models that I’ve lauded to education leaders for two years. I want to build meaningful relationships with students who have had the world at their fingertips since birth, students who demand a learning experience that my own schools would not have been able to deliver. I want to make a big impact. *End millennial rant.*
Obviously, I want a lot of things, but I have a lot of dreams. I need to remind myself to be humble and open, but at the same time, I’m ready to speak up for these things I care so deeply about.
Education Elements has given me an amazing foundation. I can’t thank the EE team enough. Through the testimonies of our district clients and our consultants, I’ve seen what is possible in innovative school systems around the country. I’ve also witnessed how hard change can be. Thanks to these experiences, I have some insight into what might await.
So, I’m excited. I’m also nervous. Time and time again, people tell me that teaching is hard: many hours, little pay, plenty of pressure. People also tell me that is unbelievably rewarding.
As I deepen my understanding of teaching and equity through STEP, I plan to write about my experiences in this blog. At any time, I welcome suggestions, questions, and criticisms. Whether you have a kick-ass learning tool or simply an anecdote about a teacher that changed your life, I would love to hear from you. Your insights will help me to become the teacher that we all wanted as a kid.
Featured Photo Credit: “Pencils” by Pat Joyce