Alumni Column – The Power of a Teacher

Kelly Lehmann Johnson '94

The national statistics continue to bear a frustrating picture of what should remain a noble and desired occupation — public school teaching. Half of all new teachers leave within the first five years, and many veteran teachers are set to retire by 2010. The way I see it, it is time to energize our best and brightest to enter the most powerful jobs in America.

Every American should be interested in public education. Most of you will have children, and they will need a good education. Also, remember that as a future homeowner, your property values will be strongly tied to the quality of the local public schools. Whether to protect your kids or to protect your investment, school quality cannot be ignored. Here is the “chicken versus egg” question: Do strong communities produce good public schools? Or do working public schools invite strong communities? I would like to think it works both ways.

Making public school teaching an accessible career path to the nation’s top college students seems an obvious start to me. At Colgate, you might not know any friends in the teacher certification program, but it exists and Colgate should be applauded that it sees the importance of this small program. Not even all the Ivy’s offer secondary certification in math and science and it’s a shame. We take supposedly the best and the brightest of our University students and tell them math and science are the tickets to the future. Yet teaching that information is not a way they can use their gifts? It is unacceptable, and providing programs for future teachers to get their degrees and certification in four years is the right thing to do. Without the monetary benefit at the end of the road that most other careers have, why would our top college grads spend additional time and money to get certified? At least it is exciting to see that many uncertified Colgate grads do go on to teach in private schools, but public schools need our help more.

Perhaps becoming less dependent on union pressures could help districts to invite new talent more frequently. Texas, for example, is not reliant on tenure – it does not exist. As teachers become less effective, they get replaced, as opposed to many school systems in which tenure is based on a teacher’s first few years. What a novel concept.

Yet the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, both incredibly strong unions, ensure that the 80% of national teachers with tenure have a costly and long process before being removed.

Goodness knows that public schools are far from perfect. We will not change them unless we go community by community and get in there. Some schools work well while others do not, and no one-size-fits-all solution exists. Classroom experience grounded in a liberal arts education is a perfect balance to train teachers. While there are multiple routes to getting certification these days, for a top college to not offer the programs sends a message that teaching is less important than medicine or law. Consider your liberal arts degree “Pre-Teaching” and a world of opportunity awaits you.

One graduates from a school like Colgate wondering how he or she will change the world. There are many possibilities. I am just here to say keep teaching on your radar. As a student in Hamilton, it is already a given that you have strong content knowledge. Yet if your other gifts include good people skills, a strong sense of right from wrong, a willingness to share your passions and good energy, there is a community in America that needs you.

It is common knowledge that teaching will not lead to big bonuses and company cars, there are no big corner offices, and most would not think it gives you much power. But it does provide a great quality of life and an opportunity to continually improve, to be challenged, and to be creative. Things that are important when deciding what kind of life you want to live. Challenge yourself to think of your life 10 years, 20 years, 30 years out. Teaching is not for everybody. Most will say good teachers consider it a “calling,” and I would say personally that this notion is the case. With a degree from one of the country’s top universities, I could have done many things, all of which would have made more money. But I would not have been using my talents, and that would have been a waste.

There is no better way to improve America than to improve your local community. As a teacher, I have former students who are doctors, lawyers, social workers, artists and yes, teachers and parents themselves. Think back to your school years – there are smart people there who cared enough about to you help you get to Colgate and launch you off to bigger and better things. Now that’s powerful.