A while back, I did an ‘Ask Me Anything’ post and one of my absolute favorite PF bloggers, Frugal Zeitgeist, asked if I would recommend teaching as a career-change for people burnt out in the corporate world. I’ve been turning the question over in my mind ever since then, and I decided to answer it in a full post about the pros and cons of teaching as a career for a couple of reasons.
The first is, I have the utmost respect for FZ (hello, she paid off her NYC mortgage in six years!) and I want to do her question justice. Second, since the start of the recession I’ve been reading a lot about people in the corporate world becoming teachers because they need a change of pace and value the job security. Third, I’ve found that when I tell people I’m a teacher they automatically assume they know what teachers do because they were once students, when really, there’s so much that goes on behind the scenes that people should really know before deciding on a career change.
Since I’m trying to be more positive, I’ll start out with some of the positive aspects of teaching, then move on to the negatives. I’m also going to try to focus on the PF implications of teaching as a career, but obviously I’ll be addressing the non-PF issues as well. Also, I’m only one voice and I’m approaching this from the perspective of a high school teacher at a Title I (i.e., high percentage of low SES students) school outside of a large, urban area. An elementary school teacher at an affluent school might have very different concerns than those that I express, so please keep my point of view in mind as you read this.
Positive Aspects of Choosing to Become a Teacher:
The first and most obvious positive aspect of becoming a teacher is having the capacity to make a lasting, positive impact on a child’s life. Think back on your own childhood; after your immediate family members, the people you probably remember most are your teachers. As a teacher, I take this responsibility very, very seriously. I feel an almost moral imperative to be sure that I am always on my A-game when I’m at school, both in terms of my attitude towards my students and my preparation for the classes I teach. And the emotional rewards for this are enormous, so again, I view this as the most positive aspect of teaching.
More tangibly, other positive aspects of becoming a teacher are the regular hours, ample vacation and personal time (including summers, of course), and outstanding benefits. In addition to really exceptional healthcare plans, in most states teachers still get a traditional pension, so the worry of saving for retirement is somewhat eased.
Finally, something that I think is often overlooked about teaching is the large degree of control I have over what I’m going to do in a given work day. I choose the activities my students are working on, I choose how I’m going to evaluate them, I choose if I’m going to grade their papers today or tomorrow, I choose which topics we focus on in class, etc. I would estimate that about 85% of what I do on a given day is completely up to me, and that’s a great feeling.
Negative Aspects of Choosing a Career in Teaching:
I would say that the most negative aspect of teaching is the physical and emotional toll it can take on you. I often come home completely depleted, in a way that is really indescribable unless you’ve experienced teaching a full day of school. I have to be so many things at once (nurturer, disciplinarian, negotiator, etc.) and have to focus on so many things at once (Are the kids working or goofing around? Does everyone understand what we’re doing? Did I turn in that paperwork to the guidance counselor? Oh no, I forgot I have a 504 meeting today!) when I’m in class all day that it truly can be draining.
Another negative aspect of teaching is other teachers. Career changers are usually most surprised by the fact that many teachers are not smart or hard working. I know I might catch flack for saying this, but the facts speak for themselves: most teachers graduate in the bottom third of their graduating classes from college, and many teachers will do anything to avoid having to work hard or take responsibility for their students’ learning. And to make matters worse, in most states it is nearly impossible to fire ineffective teachers. Politically, I’m very pro-union, but most teachers in my generation agree that the function of teacher’s unions needs to change if we are going to see changes in the quality of public education.
From a broader, public-policy point of view, a lot of teachers find it frustrating that so much emphasis is put on test scores. I personally don’t share this sentiment – I think people who aren’t teaching their students anything should be held accountable – so I think it depends on your personal philosophy towards education in terms of whether this will be a frustration or not.
Finally, of course, the pay is a negative aspect of the job for many, many teachers. Teachers in the D.C. area tend to make much, much more than teachers in other parts of the country, so I’m not as seriously strapped as some of my colleagues in other areas. But some new teachers, particularly in the Southern states, actually qualify for food stamps when they’re first starting out. Teacher pay is a complex and increasingly political issue that I have very strong feelings about, but in general, I think that most good teachers are grossly underpaid for the work that they do.
So, is Teaching Right for You?
Of course, I’ve only scratched the surface here. There are so many more pros and cons of teaching that I could probably write a book about the topic, but I’ve hit some of the major points to consider. If you are seriously considering a career change, I’d be happy to discuss the issue with you at length. Just shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’d be thrilled to answer any additionally questions you have.
And of course, drop me a comment. Did I represent the profession accurately? Do you have anything to add? Let us know!