2017 Georgia Teacher of the Year
There’s a familiar story about a boy who grew up idolizing his neighborhood baseball team. He attended every game, studied every play and practiced relentlessly. He got better and better, and when the time came he approached the team with confidence. The team manager responded to his inquiry with: “Are you sure, son? We haven’t won many games recently. You’re probably better off playing elsewhere.” The young man left dismayed – and both men missed out.
I recently attended a Future Georgia Educators program put on by PAGE at Georgia Southern University. It was energizing to meet almost 200 high schoolers from across the state who are excited about becoming teachers. I have never given out so many high fives.
And yet, it was eye-opening to learn how many of these students had received warnings or discouragement about joining the teaching profession. Even more perplexing, they heard this from their own teachers!
Georgia, like many other states, is experiencing a gross teacher shortage, brought on by the departure of an alarming number of teachers (retiring baby-boomers and 44% of new teachers) and declining enrollment in teacher programs, intensified by a growing student population. Not surprisingly, teacher recruitment and retention have become priority issues. If we’re not careful, there may be no one to pass the gradebooks to when the rest of us eventually retire. So, as in the baseball analogy, we can ill afford to turn away the fresh talent we so desperately need.
In attracting young people to teaching, at times we are fighting an unfair fight against outside forces, so we certainly can’t bear shooting ourselves in the foot. Teachers must commit to promoting the positives while exercising caution in sharing the difficulties we face. I admit that the teaching life is more challenging than it has ever been. Modern society presents new, complex obstacles that teachers must circumvent before the first word of the lesson is uttered. And teachers endure all this in exchange for very little appreciation. In my opinion, though, our challenges are no more daunting than many other occupations. Yet, we rarely hear other professionals denigrating their own career.
Surgeons work in a very stressful environment where the health, and very often the life, of the patient hangs on their ability to think quickly. They clock in for exhausting 18-hour shifts with no idea what cases will walk (or be rolled) through the door. And at the end of their shifts – starving, sleep-deprived and needing a bathroom break – you rarely hear them discuss their challenges.
Soldiers work in similarly challenging circumstances, away from home, up early for intense physical and mental training. In executing their duties many of them risk their lives to protect citizens they never even meet. Yet they rarely discuss being yelled at while crawling through the mud, or sleeping in a barracks. All we hear about is the pride of wearing the uniform and representing our country.
As a newlywed, I received some important advice about sustaining a marriage: “Resist sharing your disputes with others.” As a result, I won’t tell you that my wife leaves dirty dishes in the sink and she won’t share that I leave my socks in front of the couch. Seriously though, anyone who has made this mistake can testify that listeners can and will recall the conflict long after you’ve moved on. It’s as if the rare negative drowns out all of the more frequent good that you celebrate.
We teachers should approach our profession with that same level of marital loyalty, keeping in mind that as we remember the “aha” moments in class and the happy tears at graduation, outsiders will too readily recall the long IEP meeting and that one unruly student we made the mistake of venting about.
So, let’s resist the temptation to focus solely on our challenges. Instead, let’s flood our listeners with good stories. I once read that it takes five good memories to erase one negative memory. That ratio puts some of us far behind, but today is a good day to begin. The shift can start with us, and together we can change the narrative. Let’s see how quickly we can restore our collective teacher morale and rebuild our communities’ faith in our schools. When we commit to this goal, I can foresee a long line of the brightest and most talented young people beating down our doors to join us in this impactful work.
After all, teaching is still the most rewarding of all professions!
Casey Bethel, an AP Physics, AP Biology and Physical Science teacher at New Manchester High School in Douglasville, is the 2017 Georgia Teacher of the Year.