• Bill Cole

Why don’t the best students want to be teachers?

In the earnest 2009 documentary, American Teacher, which vividly highlights both the rewards and challenges of being a classroom teacher, one of the featured young teachers who graduated from Harvard muses over how so many people ask her why she didn’t become a doctor or a lawyer instead of her chosen profession.

“Why would you do that? You went to Harvard,” they gratuitously remind her. Her retort, “Would you not want your children taught by someone who went to Harvard?!”

This exchange seems to get at a central paradox in our society. We typically talk a big game about the importance of a first-class education. And, yet, we too often exhibit a dismissive attitude toward the practitioners on the front lines in the field. The teaching career is simply not taken very seriously as a professional choice today.

In a McKinsey & Company study it was found that a mere 23% of teachers in the U.S. come from the top third of their high school and college graduating classes, compared to 100% in such countries as Singapore, Finland and South Korea. Ironically, there is a distinct possibility that the very people involved in conducting this study did graduate from the top of their college class.

McKinsey & Company is an elite corporate consulting firm, highly coveted by young hyper-achieving college graduates. Why would so many people in the United States overwhelmingly prefer to work in a stodgy corporate environment, dispassionately analyzing the demographics of teachers, rather than be the educators themselves, passionately seeking to make the world a better place and leaving a lasting and meaningful impression on future generations?

We know the answer to this question lies within some kind of convoluted mix of pay, prestige and power. But, how did we get to a point in the United States in which this ego-fueled mix has become the preeminent value system that elucidates our career paths? This certainly is not the case in so many other industrialized countries.

One source that might be useful in pointing the way to how we got here is David Riesman’s classic sociological analysis on American character, The Lonely Crowd. On the 70th anniversary of the book’s initial publication, it seems worthwhile to consider its enduring relevance. One of Riesman’s primary assertions in the book is that over the first half of the 20th century, with the rise of industrialization, American society went through a sweeping evolution. There was a significant shift from a long-standing inner-directedness, in which most individuals assumed a more private and personal approach to self-definition and the development of a value system, to an other-directedness, in which individual life choices and value systems are most often cultivated through a comparative, and even competitive, dynamic.

This societal transformation with an increasing emphasis on materialistic concerns inherently brought factors like pay, prestige and power to the forefront when constructing individual life goals. This shift also seems to have something to do with the obscene consolidation of wealth among the scant few at the top over the last several decades. Of course the explosion of social media has served to further perpetuate this Keeping-Up-With-The-Joneses mentality, infusing Riesman’s ideas with a newly realized immediacy 70 years later.

Under these conditions, it should come as no surprise that the teaching profession has become as marginalized as it is today, our trite public praise of teachers notwithstanding. But, how can we change course? It seems impossible to put the genie back in the bottle and hold those in the teaching profession in a similar regard to those in medicine, finance or law, which is what actively occurs in Finland, South Korea and Singapore, among other countries.

Targeted policy proposals such as teacher merit pay or more rigorous training standards ultimately just tinker around the edges. It seems evident until we have another large scale societal transformation that compels us to reassess our core value system and the defining criteria for motivation and success, the state of the teaching profession will remain essentially unchanged. And if the forces of pay, prestige and power continue to be the qualities we truly value most, they will inevitably come at a huge cost to our students and their futures.