So, Why Be A Teacher Today?

So, Why Be A Teacher Today?

By Mary Brabeck

Last month, Boston College marked the 50th anniversary of the founding of its School of Education. While we celebrate the school's accomplishments, changes in the field over the past half-century and challenges facing educators today prompt a question not generally asked by education schools: Why be a teacher today?

When our school was founded in 1952, teaching was considered a noble, albeit primarily female, profession. Today, potential teachers hear about low salaries and myriad frustrations not part of the "Leave It to Beaver" 1950s. Many are discouraged from pursuing the profession by well meaning parents and friends who steer bright young women and men into the more prestigious, lucrative fields of law, medicine and business.

Today, the profession is the target of persistent criticism -- some warranted, much of it not. Despite the creativity and intelligence evident in so many current and potential teachers, efforts are underway to develop school curricula that are "teacher-proof," while alternative "quick routes" to the classroom are championed over more rigorous university-based teacher preparation.

In the 1950s teachers confronted societal problems: the challenges of segregated and unequal schools; the poverty of urban and rural families. In 1966, we learned from James Coleman's historic study that socio-economic factors were more influential in student achievement than what happened in classrooms. While we now know quality teaching makes a difference in student learning, recent research also supports Coleman's finding. This year, BC's Albert Beaton, statistical architect of the Coleman report, found the same effect when he analyzed the international comparisons of over 40 countries in the Third International Math and Science Study. Again, factors such as parents' education, the number of books in the home and the amount of time parents have at home proved critical to children's performance in school. Good teaching, it seems, is necessary but not sufficient for student achievement.

...Today's teachers face tasks much more complex than when churches and temples, neighborhoods and families collectively supported children and youth. In the 1950s, for many new teachers the pervasive student misbehavior was gum chewing. Today's new teachers must stand ready to confront an onslaught of the 'new morbidities' that threaten students' lives and well being: alcohol and drug abuse, teen pregnancy, violence, unsafe sex and HIV infection.

The fact is, no matter how knowledgeable, competent and prepared the teacher, the child who comes to school hungry, exhausted from a job or from caring for younger siblings, in pain from a toothache or fearing for his safety - this child is not ready to learn. Today's teachers must look beyond the classroom and, in many cases, must support the efforts of families. This is a daunting challenge, but it is also an opportunity to do important work.

At Boston's Thomas Gardner Extended Services Elementary School, for example, BC faculty partner with the school to provide mental health counseling, adult education, health care, and after-school, before-school and summer programs for students and families. This university-wide collaboration involves contributors from BC's schools of education, social work, management, nursing, arts and sciences and law, and it's bearing good fruit. The Gardner School just received the 2002 Mayor's Award for Excellence in Children's Health, the first Boston public school to win the honor.

We believe that through such partnerships a research university can significantly affect public schools and the lives of children and youth. Research on the effects of our work offers valuable lessons for schools, communities and universities that are trying to do the same.

Of course, efforts such as these succeed only when teachers are fully prepared to meet the demands of the 21st-century classroom. A teacher for today's schools needs to know how to teach reading, writing and mathematics, how to manage a classroom, how to develop curriculum that's content-rich and challenging but also engaging. A teacher for today's students needs to know how a child from rural Somalia and a child from urban Bogotá learn, how to teach the gifted child and the child challenged by learning or physical disabilities. A teacher today needs to know how to use tests to assess learning, and how to adapt instruction when learning is not taking place.

A teacher today needs to marshal the assistance of other professionals and parents to collaboratively meet all the needs of the student, before, during and after school. Preparing that teacher takes a school of education.

Finally, a teacher today needs to know that we value her, that we celebrate his choice of profession, that the work each teacher does is important work, worthy of our respect and gratitude. Supporting that teacher takes the commitment of society.

In fall 2000, BC's School of Education was renamed in honor of Carolyn and Peter Lynch, whose gift is both a generous endorsement of our work and a heartening statement by a major figure in the world of business. The Lynches' gift says that teachers, school counselors, administrators, support professionals and the schools that prepare them have value.

Why be a teacher today?

Because it's challenging. Because it's never boring. Because it's important. Because our democracy depends on what happens in our schools. Because, as Christa McAuliffe famously said, "I touch the future...I teach."

Be a teacher, because 50 years after the founding we now celebrate, teaching remains a noble profession.

Mary M. Brabeck is professor and dean of the Carolyn A. and Peter S. Lynch School of Education

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