Last month, I got a call from my daughter. A senior at Winston Salem State, I could hear from her first breath that she had news. “I got in!” she told me, “I start teaching in August!”
But for all the reasons to worry about the future of my profession, as I’ve watched my daughter choose the classroom, I can’t help but be downright hopeful.
Leah had just been admitted to Teach For America, a non-profit that recruits high-achievers like her to teach in public schools serving low-income kids – schools like the where I’ve spent my own career, as teacher, then principal. It’s a mission that’s gotten tougher of late – as the public debate around education gets more heated, teachers feel the pinch of policies and politics, and a new generation sets its eyes on start-ups, not chalkboards.
But for all the reasons to worry about the future of my profession, as I’ve watched my daughter choose the classroom, I can’t help but be downright hopeful. Blame the teacher in me – I see what’s possible.
My own teaching career followed a somewhat traditional path. Like Leah, I graduated from Winston Salem State – formerly Winston-Salem Teachers College, the first African American college or university to grant degrees for elementary teaching. From there, I taught four years of elementary school in Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, spent the bulk of my 34-year education career in Atlanta, then returned to Charlotte a few years back. Through all of it, I’ve learned one thing. Great schools are game-changers. So are the people inside them.
And it’s with this singular insight that I find my way back to optimism. Every day, despite the challenges they know they’ll face, people are choosing to teach – some are bright-eyed 22-year-olds like Leah, others come to the classroom after a first career or two. And they do it not because they’re ignorant of the hurdles they’ll face, but in determined defiance of them. I know it will be difficult, my daughter tells me. I just can’t wait to meet my kids.
It’s important also that we call foul on this emerging narrative about North Carolina’s public schools as a sinking ship.
The challenges for teachers in our state are real, as are the headlines about turnover, low-retention, and the barriers to improving. As a former principal, I know the pain of this. But just as we must be attentive to the pressing needs of our educators, it’s important also that we call foul on this emerging narrative about North Carolina’s public schools as a sinking ship. It’s a story that undermines the day-in-day-out hard work of teacher and student alike. It misrepresents their tremendous commitment to excellent. It moves us back, not forward.
Next year, my daughter becomes a teacher – a dream she’s been nurturing since as long as either of us can remember. Let’s take pride in her choice. Let’s talk seriously about what it will take to make her work sustainable over the long-term. Let’s think about the values we care about and encourage other dynamic people in our lives to choose the same path – whether through programs like Teach For America, or more traditional routes like mine. My bet? Their students can’t wait to meet them either.
Editor’s Note: This article originally ran in The Charlotte Observer on December 29, 2014.