Almost two weeks ago, Monica Ross Williams interviewed me on Reach Out Job Search Radio as a career expert. Monica was an excellent host and I really thank her for giving me the opportunity to speak with her on her show. One of the questions she asked was “Would you recommend that young people become teachers in today’s economy?” I was surprisingly floored. Strangely, no one ever asks me that question. Since I spent almost ten years recruiting teachers and principals in New York City, people generally assume that my answer to this question would be yes.
But when Monica asked me the question, I realized I couldn’t unequivocally say yes. I wanted to give a fair and actionable answer as someone people can count on to give trustworthy advice on career options, especially if they are giving me money to do so. So I thought about it and here’s my answer: Yes, but with caveats and two pieces of pragmatic advice.
Create a back-up plan in case teaching doesn’t work out.
When deciding on a career, everyone should think about their potential return on investment (ROI) for it. Your ROI doesn’t just include what you’ll earn as a salary against your initial education costs, but the value you put on your time. If you’re going into teaching, it should be because you believe your personal satisfaction, or your return, will be worth your investment, including all the financial, time, and emotional costs you’ll experience in preparing for and doing it.
What many people don’t understand is that the cost to become a teacher in our country is extremely high for an entry-level profession that pays little. The barrier is high because certification is expensive. In many states, certification requires at least one semester of unpaid labor in the student teaching experience and a master’s degree after a few years of teaching. It also takes more time to become a good teacher compared to other entry-level professions where the learning curve is shorter. If you go through all that …and then can’t get a teaching job or decide it’s not for you, your options may be limited as an education degree doesn’t have the same market value of a liberal arts degree. If you read the I TEACH NYC Facebook page, you’ll see that many of the recent graduates who did not find teaching jobs were forced into retail positions because they couldn’t convince other employers of the transferable value of their experience and education. Did you really spend all that money on your BA to now only be qualified to work at Forever 21 as a clerk or as your neighborhood barista? (I’m asking Justin to do some research and find more information on what education majors do besides teaching for a future blog post.)
Though our country’s private sector has recovered, it takes a while for that recovery to trickle down to the public sector in the form of taxes to support education. Consumers also don’t trust that the recovery is real so they’re not spending, affecting incoming sales tax. The fact is that no matter how you wish it to be different, districts are not hiring teachers in great numbers and I am not sure the perpetual “teacher shortage” is ever coming back. The National Association of Colleges and Employers issued a survey that found that for the class of 2010, journalism graduates were more likely to find jobs than teachers. I never expected to see data like that in my lifetime, but it’s reality.
So if you’re thinking about teaching, double major in something else you like in addition to education. That doesn’t mean that you have to pick something like accounting if you hate numbers, but something that could get you a job that pays a market-rate college graduate salary. Spend at least one of your college summers interning in that field or take a virtual internship during the school year with flexible hours. When graduation approaches, doggedly pursue teaching, but if you’re not finding anything after a reasonable amount of time, start pursuing that back-up plan. You can always pursue teaching when the economy changes.
As an aside… I think this high cost to enter the teaching profession is an important point for people who are following all the Wisconsin rhetoric to understand, even if you’re against public sector unions. Since new teachers have to work a long time at a low teacher salary to break even on what they paid to get that certificate, stability and easy entry into the job market become more essential to the livelihood of a teacher than it does for other professions. While there may be reasons for private sector employees to be on Scott Walker’s side, the argument that removing tenure rights will make teachers “more like us” does not hold economically. It’s more complicated than the sound bites make you believe.
Understand what teaching is and what it’s not.
Teaching is about setting high goals for your students and doing everything you can to help them meet those goals. That means instruction, as well as helping them find ways to limit the obstacles they face outside the classroom, whether it’s building up their coping and other soft skills, working with their parents, or collaborating with professional partners outside your classroom. It requires significant leadership and analytical skills. Teaching is not working with kids, or imparting your wisdom, or solving problems of social justice and if those are your main motivations, the job is not for you. Those are parts of the jobs, but they serve to support your daily mission to do things in your classroom that will make your real-life students- like my Glendy, Anthony, Kayla and Stephanie- become people in their 20s doing things that satisfy them and help them support themselves.
Before applying to a teacher certification program, go shadow a teacher that you respect for a day. Can you do this every day? Will you be able to filter all the political noise around teaching to concentrate on your students short and long-term needs?
On Monday, President Obama gave an education speech and made references to teachers’ role as nation builders. I agree with him, but inspiration is cheap (with all due respect, Mr. President). So please, be a teacher because we need smart and dedicated people like you, especially in science and special education. Just do all the hard planning work you need to do BEFORE you send in that application to the teacher certification program of your choice. As a career coach, I help people change their career directions all the time so my point is not to make you think that you’re wedded to teaching for the rest of your life because you study it. Just don’t underestimate the costs before making an initial commitment.