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Perspective | Why I almost talked myself out of becoming a teacher

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“What will you be when you grow up?”

When I was asked this question in high school, I knew that I wanted to pick a career that gave back to those around me. The medical profession was my natural inclination. After all, isn’t saving a life the most powerful manner to serve someone? However, I also wanted something a bit more out-of-the-box, which led me to choose biomedical engineering as my intended career. 

While making this decision, I was always aware of the importance of a strong education system in improving society. I read to young children as a volunteer at the local library. Having started my K-12 schooling journey at a Montessori school and ending it at a traditional public school, I was passionate about alternative learning methods and, as a senior, I even advocated for reforms in instructional approaches at my high school. 

Despite such extensive interest in education, never for a single moment did it cross my mind to become a teacher.

When answering college interview questions about my choice of major, I always answered that I believed health care was the most important societal need because it saved lives. But I knew in the back of my head that education was equally, if not more, important because it enhanced quality of life. 

I was fortunate to receive the Park Scholarship, a four-year merit scholarship to attend North Carolina State University. When I read the bios of my peers from across the state and country, I was reassured that biomedical engineering was the right major for me. After all, out of the 39 students in my cohort, 30 had declared majors in the engineering or health care fields. If the majority of the students selected for a prestigious scholarship had chosen a profession in these two fields, I thought, I must be on the right path. 

But in college I felt disinterested in my engineering courses. That’s when I started to consider teaching as a profession. I knew that there were grave problems within the education system, but I had never imagined before that the greatest way to make change was to lead by example — changing lives as a teacher. 

When I finally made the decision to pursue a teaching career, it brought me a sense of contentment in finding my passion. It came with great concern from my family, though. Many family members spent hours trying to convince me to switch my major back to biomedical engineering because I “wouldn’t be able to pay my bills.” This feeling is not unique to my family. After all, 62% of parents do not want their children to become teachers (and low pay is the top reason why). 

According to the Economic Policy Institute, after adjusting for inflation, the “average weekly wages of teachers have increased only $29 from 1996 to 2021, while the average weekly wages of other college graduates has risen by $445…”

This discrepancy between teaching and other college-educated professions has reduced the desirability of the career. Back in 2010, McKinsey & Company’s market research on “top-third” college students’ career aspirations found compensation to be the largest perceived gap between teaching and their preferred career choice.

Given localized teacher shortages as well as the decline in students enrolled in educator preparation programs, it is essential to raise teacher salaries to break this cycle of socialization that has convinced parents and children that teaching is an undesirable profession.

Both the bipartisan American Teacher Act in Congress as well as the Pay Teachers Act would raise teacher salaries to a minimum of $60,000. This would pay teachers a livable and competitive salary, and also take one step toward improving the desirability of the profession. This raise is essential to recover from decades of neglect towards the teaching profession. 

After all, more of our children should feel like they can confidently answer that inevitable question with their truest passion: “A teacher.”

Syna Sharma

Syna Sharma is a Park Scholar and pre-service teacher at N.C. State University preparing to be a Middle Grades Language Arts and Social Studies teacher.