The Terror of Not Being Able to Teach
Easily one of the most uncomfortable moments of Race to Nowhere came when the audience met a young woman teaching at a school in Oakland, CA. I wish that I had thought to write down her name, but her story sticks with me. I immediately related to her lifelong desire to become a teacher and her eagerness to get out of college and into a classroom of her own. I watched as she moved around her high school English classroom, excitedly reading excerpts from A Midsummer Night's Dream and engaging her students in a discussion about.
And then, I watched as her on-screen testimony went from joy to sadness and bitterness in just minutes.
For she was the kind of teacher that I know is out there, working their way through pre-service education or their first year or two in a school. Still driven by a passion for learning, still motivated to make lasting changes in the lives of her students. And slowly but surely, her internal flame was snuffed out by the kind of school that we want to make all of them more like.
Teach this, not that. That can’t be covered on the test, don’t waste your time. Get rid of recess. Get rid of time for play. Focus less on social skills, you’re not devoting enough time to mathematics. Your methods? They’re taking up too much time. They’re inefficient. You don’t assign meaningless homework? You’re not doing your job. You disagree with formal grading? You are coddling my child. You can’t be guaranteed that your students know the material. They’ll never learn. Your students will fail.
You will fail.
I’ll just admit that I came just as close to tears in this segment of the documentary as I did when Vicki Abeles sat down with the mother of Devon Marvin, the 13 year old girl whose suicide prompted Abeles to begin working on this film. Watching this young teacher confess that she had to resign from her position as a schoolteacher or watch her own well-being spiral dangerously out of control was simply terrifying. I immediately began to worry that this was my future: a brief career as the kind of teacher that I have always wanted to be, stopped dead in its tracks by a system more worried about numbers and averages than students and young minds.
And so what do we do? President Obama and the Department of Education have plans to attract more qualified teachers to struggling classrooms, but what are we doing to ensure that they want to stay? Because motivation isn’t only important in the context of pedagogy and classroom management; without autonomy and purpose, young and seasoned educators alike are going to find themselves making a difficult decision. Is it worth it to abandon your ideals and subscribe to a brand of education that you do not agree with, a brand of education that eats away at your passion for teaching?
I’d like to think that I know myself very well. I know that I am determined to make a difference in this field, but I also know that I sometimes back away from things out of fear and uncertainty. And I can’t think of anything more terrifying than not being a teacher.