Ilana Garon

No More Apples, Just Respect


My boyfriend is one of the lucky ones. His life passions just so happen to align with one of the most venerated professions you could ever have: being a doctor. His parents beam at his accomplishment of getting into one of the top medical schools in the country and becoming the first doctor in their family. Genuinely fascinated by his chosen path, everyone he speaks with barrages him with questions about what he’s currently studying and wants to specialize in, to which he replies with beguiling stories about gut-wrenching surgeries and his exploits with cadavers.

I, however, am not as lucky in this respect. What I want to be is a teacher and the general reaction to my career choice is usually quite the opposite. Here’s how the scene goes:

Stranger at party: “Are you also going to medical school?” Me: “Oh, no. I’m planning to start grad school next year." Stranger: “What do you want to go to grad school for?” Me: “Education. I want to teach.” Stranger: (utterly unimpressed) “Oh…”

[End of small talk]

We’ve all heard the saying “Those who can’t do, teach.”  In the United States teaching is grossly undervalued as a second-rate career, as many people liken teachers to over glorified babysitters that get summer vacations off. What many people don’t realize that this conception has a profound effect on America that becomes fairly obvious if you think about it -- devaluing teachers means you are devaluing education itself.

Doesn’t that sound absurd? In a country that is obsessed with standardized tests and Ivy League universities, and where some parents pay $20,000 tuitions for fiercely competitive preschools, Americans know that an excellent education is as vital as food and water in order to become successful. One would think that more respect would be paid to the people who were actually facilitating said education.

Because of its current mediocre status, the majority of talented college graduates pass up teaching for more socially gratifying careers in medicine, law or business, all of which bring potentially lofty paychecks -- along with the prestige and esteem they represent. Teacher and author Ilana Garon reports that only 23% of teachers in the United States come from the top third tier of their graduating classes. In contrast:

“... the world's top-performing education systems – South Korea, Finland, Singapore – have this in common: 100% of teachers come from the top third of the college graduates, which (along with good working conditions, ample training and professional development, and higher salaries) promotes a culture wherein the teaching profession is viewed as selective and prestigious.”

America’s international rankings in education are severely lagging behind these teacher-driven countries, coming in 30th in math, 23rd in science, and 20th in reading out of 65 of the world’s most developed countries.

Even though multitudes of factors (such as funding and policy) are involved in running an effective education system, researchers are finding that nothing tops the impact of an excellent teacher in terms of student achievement. While investigating studies on teacher effects, Malcolm Gladwell discovers that students are “better off in a ‘bad’ school with an excellent teacher than an excellent school with a bad teacher.” The bottom line is, if the United States wants to maintain its position as a globally competitive power, then the societal attitude towards teachers needs to change.

Things are slowly moving in the right direction, however, as education reformers are making grander efforts to find individuals who have the potential to be great teachers, and alter the public perception of the profession. It’s now trendy for graduates (such as myself) to go into teaching fellowships straight out of college. Teach for America’s skyrocketing popularity has made its application process even more competitive than law school. Following up their award-winning documentary, the makers of “Waiting for Superman” recently released a new film entitled “Teach,” which showcases the stories of dedicated teachers on a mission to make a difference.

As a Fil-Am, I haven’t heard much enthusiasm from family members about my interest in education. Instead, they also prefer talking about my boyfriend’s glamorous medical career and insist that I “Lock that up!” Of course, I can understand how for many Pilipino immigrants who uprooted their lives seeking greater opportunity for their children, pursuing anything less than a doctor or equivalently-esteemed career might seem like squandering the American dream.

The true American dream, however, is about equality. So is education. My mission as a teacher is to ensure that every child, no matter their background, has the skills and confidence to uplift themselves out of whatever might plague them (whether its poverty, ignorance, or boredom) and fulfill their potential. Just like any doctor, we teachers hope to change lives. Can’t we just get a little bit more respect?

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