By Sarah Quane Smyth
In high school, I had a friend whom I greatly admired. She had a tenacious, almost ruthless drive towards success while maintaining a wickedly funny sense of humor and a bustling social life. She racked up debate trophies, got straight A’s, played sports, took on leadership roles, and had the general charisma and personality to elude the dreaded label of ‘nerd.’ I often thought that she would go into business or politics, and that her competence and confidence would catapult her ahead of her counterparts in some highly competitive male-dominated field. I was surprised when I found out what path she pursued. I was disappointed in her lack of ambition. She became a teacher.
After we reconnected, her analysis of the challenges of teaching in the Brownsville neighborhood of New York, her complex experiences, and the obvious adoration she had for her students made it clear that she had found an incredible outlet for her intelligence, charm, and boundless talent. I wanted in. I became a teacher.
Now, years later, I grapple with bureaucratic expectations and children struggling with both reading and puberty. As I try to work toward my vision of independent thinkers who can still pass a multiple-choice test, I cannot believe that I thought of teaching as a profession for the unambitious.
In the past three years, I have realized what a high caliber of intellect that teaching attracts. But often, these men and women are not using their expertise, extensive education, and creativity to make decisions. In fact, much of what they do in the classroom is mandated, and trying to keep up with the ever-changing expectations that are passed down a long chain of command can be dizzying.
Veteran public school teachers tell me that educational fads and buzzwords change every five years or so, and so will the entire curriculum. I am entering my fourth year. I am still green enough to believe that I can create a 45-minute lesson plan that involves student-centered learning, multiple entry points, frequent assessment, conferencing with individual students, stopping points for direct instruction, fast-pacing, high-level questioning, and student discussion, all while collecting information for the sacred ‘data binder.’ I am expected to be able to do this within the confines of a mandated curriculum that I sometimes find unstimulating.
I have been inspired by stern, by-the-book disciplinarians, as well as zany teachers with marker-covered fingers during different stages of my life. I cannot imagine what would have been lost if they were made to switch their material or approach.
Teaching and learning are founded on relationships—connections among content, ideas and disciplines—but also connections between people. To persistently mandate that things be done a certain way is to undermine the individuality that a teacher brings to her craft, and also the individuality that the students bring to her classroom.
Perhaps if we all thought of becoming a teacher as an impressive accomplishment, and of the teachers themselves as authorities on what is right for children, we wouldn’t need to spend so much time and money making teaching a one-size-fits-all craft. Perhaps the job would be more fulfilling, the retention rates higher, and even more of the most accomplished academics would aspire to educate. If autonomy were in the hands of those who interact with the children most—and choose to dedicate their talent to them—teachers would be able to serve the students first, not the system.
Sarah Quane Smyth is a writer, actress, and literacy teacher in a New York City Title I middle school.