Purpose and Commitment

I read William Pannapacker’s “Overeducated, Underemployed” with terrific interest, personal and professional. I am grateful to have what must be one of the last tenure-track positions in social foundations of education in the country, and am keenly aware of the job challenges of most PhDs in the humanities and, increasingly, the social sciences. I am also at an institution with a manifest commitment to undergraduate teaching, so I do not feel the pressure, perhaps endemic to “R1” culture, to give lip service to it while actually being more devoted to my research. I am fortunate indeed, and in the minority of PhDs of my vintage.

Pannapacker makes the point that PhD programs need to do a better job at educating students about other career trajectories that are outside of the academy, free of the parochial stigma and Freudian drama that so frequently accompanies advisor / advisee relationships. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s Initiative on the Doctorate affirms as much:

The PhD is a route to many destinations, and those holding the doctorate follow diverse career paths. Some seek out a life in academe, while others choose business or industry, or work in government or non-profit settings. Yet all are scholars, for the work of scholarship is not a function of setting but of purpose and commitment (4).

“Not a function of setting but of purpose and commitment.” How might this breadth of understanding transfer to our teacher education programs? Are we doing a good job preparing teacher candidates to think about everything might do with their knowledge and commitment to teaching, outside or beyond public school classroom work?

The question seems counter to the belief that our sole obligation is to our public school students. Of course, they remain our primary stewardship, and the main reason we are here. But in a climate where public school teaching opportunities are shrinking with the fortunes of other sectors, we do our students a disservice if we do not support them in also thinking more broadly about their options and careers.

My own path has been a twisty one to this point, and I am grateful for every experience that brought me here (and for a doctoral advisor who understood that not all fruitful academics beeline for assistant professor gigs). I began as an independent school teacher, not because I do not support public schools (which educated me), but because I had not earned a teaching license in undergrad and still desperately wanted to teach.

I have since held several positions that few teacher candidates know exist: curriculum developer in a not-for-profit professional development program, educational consultant at a university-based medical school, fixed-term appointments seemingly unconnected to “teaching.” Each position seems essential in hindsight, a step on the path, not off it. And each did valuable work in some part of a larger and worthy education project that was not immediately connected to K-12 students.

I remember vividly my interview for the job at the School of Medicine, where after fifteen minutes of hitting it off with the physician interviewing me I felt the need to clarify: “you do understand, right, that I know nothing about medicine?” “Everyone here knows about medicine,” she replied. “We need someone who knows about education.”

This powerful truth needs to be shared with those preparing to be educators. Every line of work, everywhere, also teaches. Our students are learning a valuable, marketable skill set that is relevant to any industry where knowledge, skills, and attitudes need to be passed from one group to another (which would be all of them). A teacher’s expertise is essential. If we can understand it as such, opportunities open far beyond the traditional ones. This realization is not disloyal to the public school students who need our best people teaching them. It is supportive of our own students, who deserve lives of security and autonomy and should be prepared to build them whatever the economy throws their way.

More’s the point, not to empower our students seems to make us complicit in the creeping historical conviction that teaching must always be, in some part, a martyrdom. This deeply-held value seemed confirmed by this year’s national conversation on collective bargaining that successfully cast teachers who sought to protect their own interests as “greedy, chalk-dusted succubi”. What is wrong with us as a profession that we continue to believe others’ versions of what we do? Or as Peter Taubman asks, “how did we become complicit in the erosion of our own power?”(128).

It seems that part of our responsibility to the next generation of teachers is to help them realize the value of their skills, and to encourage them to find all the ways those skills can contribute beyond those that are immediately apparent. The jobs that open from that mindset stretch far beyond what they (or we) can see right now.

What do you think?

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