A Lament for the Loss of Young Teachers

mr-hollands-opus dreyfuss teachingLast week I wrote a post about the problems of the lack of women in academic publishing, using my favourite publisher, Zondervan, as a test case for the conversation. Senior editor Katya Covrett responded, setting the problem of academic publishing in a much larger problem of a lack of women in Christian academic careers. Covrett has been intentional as an acquisitions editor in recruiting women, yet there is still a yawning gap.

Pulling back from the gender question—a concern that Covrett and I share—I wanted to use the context of that conversation to share what I think is a bigger problem in teaching professions—and one that makes recruiting women and emerging scholars to Christian thinking even harder.

Mr_Hollands_OpusOne of my wife’s favourite films is Mr. Holland’s Opus. At the head of a strong cast, Richard Dreyfuss gives the performance of a lifetime as a frustrated artist who finds the entire ground of his being shift. Once trapped by the backup plan—a support mechanism that began to cage him in at all sides—his pretty little cage begins to fall away. As a greying father and music teacher, Mr. Holland, Dreyfuss finds himself longing for the very things he has come to resent.

I have not seen this film for 15 or 20 years, but I remember it intimately. Mr. Holland’s Opus has the strength of teenage love or childhood trauma for me. It is intrinsically linked with my story, as if it had happened to me.

Yet, there is a reason I have refused to watched it again. There are a few, actually.

Mr. Holland’s fallback career is teaching. As a young husband working as a classical composer on his magnum opus, the struggles of an aging car and a cramped apartment are heightened by the birth of his son. He takes a position teaching high school students to provide a home for his growing family. Meant to be temporary until he completed his symphony, the necessities of life mean that he is teaching kids how to drive after school and in the summer while his composition sheets rest undisturbed on the piano at home.

In his heart, Mr. Holland plays with resentment. Wife and son and sorrow and students are all the minutes of each day that keep him from his true calling.

holland02Some of us find the altar quicker than others. For Mr. Holland it takes a series of conversion moments before he discovers that his magnum opus is not the symphony, still incomplete, but the life that he had composed before him.

It is a gorgeous film, beautifully written and magnificently acted.

And it fills me, to this day, with a kind of grief and anger that brings tears to my eyes.

RichardDreyfus mr hollands opusThis film comes at me from all sides. I too am a frustrated artist, whose manuscripts moulder—if digital files can be described as moulder—as my creative energy goes into other people’s work. Though I feel the passing of time desperately, by whatever act of Providence I learned early what it took Mr. Holland a lifetime to learn.

My greatest script is not the next bestseller, but my family, my neighbourhood, my church and friends and students.

While frustrated artists, writers, dancers, architects, and entrepreneurs can identify with Mr. Holland’s story, I am someone who desperately wants what for him was a distraction.

I want to teach. I want to inspire young hearts and minds. I want to raise the critical bar of a generation who were not entrusted with the best that our school system could give them. And I want to help a generation of students to change the world in ways that I cannot.

And as difficult as it is to find my way to a publisher, as it turns out finding a space in front of a white board is far more elusive than a listing on Amazon.

Mr. Holland’s Opus dreyfuss babyI am not alone, and the problem is not limited to the academic teaching world.

Dreyfuss’ character is the model of the Baby Boomer vocational model. Those who can fight or pay their way through a liberal arts degree find themselves stumbling into a job. Given the rapid growth of their community, the job becomes a career. And over a series of moves, purchases, renovations, pregnancies, and golf games, the career becomes a life. Retirement brings a pension, which gives space for renovation, travel, grandchildren, and a few more golf games

It is the middle class American dream.

It is not the reality for most of us in Generation X or Y. We are vocational nomads, born into an age of financial instability and fated to a continuing narrative of austerity.

I like the financial austerity, personally. I think it makes us lean and lithe, able to adapt to a rapidly changing global marketplace.

DesertIt is not economic austerity that frightens me. It is the austerity of hope and courage and innovation that dominates the conversation for young people as they find their way in the world. That’s what keeps me up at night. This pessimism is not coming from people in their 20s and 30s—and even 40s—who are struggling to find their way. Among their great gifts to us, Baby Boomers have left for us a legacy of despair.

Nowhere else is this so acute as for those who would love to be teachers, whether in the university and college world, or in the public school system. Once a fallback job, where bright students could get a BEd in case nothing else worked out and they needed to teach, there are now very few teaching jobs. Where we once had a problem with teachers who didn’t want to be teachers—even teachers that resented their students, like Mr. Holland—we now have young scholars desperate to find their way to a classroom.

But there are no new classrooms available.

teacher-apple studentCertainly there are some hot teaching markets.

Houston, Phoenix, the coastal Southeast US are great places for young teachers to find a space to serve—especially if they can work with children who have barriers to learning. In the largest cities like Chicago, LA, and Toronto, the cream will rise to the top and find their way in. There are also some spaces in the UK and North America for teachers who specialize in Math and Sciences or, in Canada, French.

Spaces in the academy, though, are terrifyingly absent. Only 1 in 5 PhD graduates find themselves in a tenure-track position where they can teach, write, research, and serve their communities. Almost half of US high school teachers have a master’s degree, resulting in an inflation in credentials means it is difficult for most to get a job. Many passionate teachers are permanent substitutes or teaching English overseas.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, public school teachers are getting older, while emerging scholars find their way into the business world. So many of our teachers, researchers and writers—a whole generation of the curious—are filling boardrooms and assembly lines when they should be filling the margins of notebooks with red pencil marks.

Apply on textbook

It is not only a “Brain Drain,” but a rapid evacuation of curiosity and passion from the lives of young people.

What has caused this problem?

As it turns out, it is not a single problem, but a perfect storm of uncertainties.

The financial crash of 2008, and the long, slow recession that followed, has redefined our entire lives. Many teachers and professors, having lost a great deal of their lifelong investments, have suspended retirement. It is a generational trend in all kinds of jobs. In my government job, I am in the youngest quartile of workers. As one student described it, Baby Boomers are clinging to their cubicles for dear life.

apple hand beauty artAt the same time that there are fewer job opportunities because workers are working longer, in universities and school systems, administrators are not filling the positions of those who retire. Sometimes they are “hanging” the positions, leaving time until the fill them. In rural areas and in most universities they are combining classrooms and even closing departments in fields like literature, anthropology, classics, and physics.

In the late 60s, as so many Mr. Hollands were stumbling into careers, Ronald Reagan asked a key question: Why should we subsidize intellectual curiosity? As governor of a growing state and high national GDP, he perhaps had the luxury to question the value of creativity and curiosity at the highest levels. His question has become the grand narrative of our day. Governments and research funding agencies have shifted their money away from the liberal arts and sciences to technical and precise training and research.

Add shifting demographics in aging cultures, increasing disparity between the very rich and the working poor, a global education market, donor and research dominance among the top schools, and a crisis in confidence in the public, and you have a recipe for death of teaching as a vocation.

apple-handAnd God help you if you have a teacher like Mr. Holland in his early days, clinging to his desk for dear life. You are not likely to have the academic credibility after grade 12 to compete in today’s world, let along find space for your dreams.

Perhaps Reagan would suggest that we can’t be subsidizing dreams, either.

When a student comes to me and asks for a recommendation for grad school or a Bachelor of Education, I sit them down and have a long talk. I am anxious to teach, but the prospects are not good. Until 2012, I made a full-time salary teaching by contract. This year I made $15,500, and filled out my salary with other kinds of work. Next year I have $3,600 in teaching contracts ready. Hardly a bright future.

So I make sure, before writing a recommendation, that hopeful teachers know what they are in for. I suspect the market will open up over the next 5-10 years in public school, but the University may never recover. Ever.

red yellow green appleIf you cannot tell, I am someone who has counted the cost. I know that my pursuit of a PhD is not a golden ticket. Rather than the protected space to teach, write, research, and serve the community I love, I will either have to move or pursue academics independently.

I know this, but there are days when I am not sure if I can carry this. I am deeply sad.

The loss for culture, however, is far deeper than one frustrated teacher like me or you. If we believed that education was stationary, we tie children to their desks and undergraduates to their laptops and feed them on white pages and bright screens.

But that is not how education works. As a Christian I believe that God is active in our reality. Education, then, must move and transform and rise up to meet each generation’s questions and hopes and learning needs.

Oxfordshire, Oxford, Magdalen College II
So if our educational institutions—our small elementary schools and large high schools and our centuries-old universities—are not employing emerging educations, it is our students who will miss out.

Moreover, to bring it back to this particular blogging series, if schools aren’t including emerging scholars and teachers, they aren’t including the emerging voices women scholars and teachers with a broad varieties of culture and experience.

I, personally, will find my way. But I lament the loss of a generation of teachers. I agree with the meme quote that says that “A teacher is a compass that activates the magnets of curiosity, knowledge, and wisdom in the pupils.” If we lose all these new young teachers, we shouldn’t wonder that our culture feels lost.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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25 Responses to A Lament for the Loss of Young Teachers

  1. Pingback: What I learned about Gender from the Zondervan Catalogue | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  2. Wayne Stauffer says:

    i would love to talk at length on this very topic…

    will you be posting commentary/analysis of Dead Poets Society?

    wayno Sent from my iPad



  3. L.A. Smith says:

    Good post, albeit a depressing one. My son is graduating this year with a degree in Philosophy, he hopes to get into graduate school and eventually to teach in a University. It’s a tough road to walk, and I feel very sad that it should be so.


    • Yes, I know the pain. By the time he is done in 8 or 10 years, it may be different. There is always hope, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

    • A. Rutherford says:

      My nephew is currently at the University of Indiana working on his Ph.D in Philosophy, after doing his Master’s work at the University of Chicago, where he excelled. He too started out with so much enthusiasm and idealism about one day being an educator. But when he was home for Thanksgiving break, we had a talk and he was so discouraged about his prospects, expressing many of the same points made in this blog post. He is an extremely bright young man with so much to offer, but will probably find few takers, it seems.

      He too covets that ” tenure-track position where they can teach, write, research, and serve their communities.” But he will likely not be able to live out his dream, and that will be society’s loss as well, in my opinion.

      I just finished my teaching career, and I am so grateful I was able to do my teaching in a time and place where I had a wonderful ride lighting fires in young minds and hearts through great literature. As a Christian, I too found God active in my reality, even in the public school system, although my voice as a thoughtful Christian was finding less acceptance in the last few years in the system. I retired from the public system to become an academic administrator in a Classical private school, which has given a peaceful, fitting end to my career, but I missed the rough and tumble give and take I had with so many broken young people in public school that I was able to pour hope and healing into through our conversation with the great ideas.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for telling the story of your career–which seems like you had to be nimble as culture changed around you–and your nephew. My best wishes to him. I don’t always write with such pain behind the words, but my story is the story of 100s or 1000s of teachers that want to teacher.
        It is no longer good enough to be a bright and passionate student who excels in grad school or the professional program.


  4. Hanna says:

    Wow. I’m hoping to teach English myself, so thanks for letting me know what I’m up against.


    • I don’t know what region you are in Hanna, but there are some challenges ahead. It is not impossible in secondary school, but there is a potential that college/university are slipping away for you. When the degree is closing, you will have to make some choices.
      As I said, many high school teachers carry another degree. I hope this makes them better teachers!


  5. L. Palmer says:

    I got my teaching credential in English in 2008 and went through a year and a half of doing odd jobs and random teaching assignments before I left for other fields. I’m now getting a Masters in Public Administration to open doors in the non-teaching world.
    I see a lot of calls for better teachers and more accountability for teachers, but most in the public don’t see how tough the job market is, and how little the pay is for how hard the job is.
    The competition is a lot harder at the university level as well. It’s a tough competition.


    • I agree completely. Can I ask a hard question? When you left for other things, did you want to be a teacher still?


      • L. Palmer says:

        When I left, I was burnt out after spending six years as a high school tutor, a year and a half getting my credential (student teaching and subbing in high school), and another year and a half doing semester-long jobs while constantly looking for the next job.
        It was the combination of the challenges of being a new teacher combined with the constant job search and no job security that exhausted me.
        I was miserable, and realized there are plenty of other careers I could do – which has led me to working toward becoming a manager in the public service sector.
        I still like teaching and working with students, but I enjoy actually having a work-life balance – though, that’s only sometimes in graduate school.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. loritischler says:

    Excellently written, as always. Two tiny comments: you make generalizations (cited support lacking) that do not reflect the entire situation across North America and elsewhere. Secondly, as an “older” teacher, I believe we still have much of value to give the new generation, although I heartily agree that the Academy needs young pertinent teAchers as well. I’m knick-mportantpicking here. Overall, insightful and very worthy piece here.


    • I haven’t cited anything, really! I wanted it unbound from citations because I was making generalizations. The US teaching population is getting older, but there is regional renewal (I only mentioned a few). And there are probably 25,000 teaching jobs open in the US any one day. Unfortunately (for wannabe teachers), there are many more applicants than jobs. I don’t know the Spanish market for the US, or what shifts in curriculum directions in the UK will mean. So I really am just generalizing. A lot of students with fresh teaching certificates are feeling a lot of pain.
      But the second part–older teachers–I did not mean to set aside. This is especially true in specialties, practical, and academic teaching, where skills are hones over a lifetime.
      And I guess I presumed the awesomeness of Mr. Holland as the baseline of a teacher that can get better and better.


  7. A friend of mine used to teach courses in English Literature in a number of universities in the English Midlands without tenure in any of them. I remember that at that time he and his family were struggling to pay the bills and his children actually showed signs of poverty in their faces and they were unhealthily thin. Eventually he gave up and took a job in finance. I was relieved to see his children’s health improve as his prosperity grew. Now my older daughter is applying for post-graduate degrees. Would anyone advise her to consider a career in university teaching? Would she be better off as a cultivated and highly intelligent financier?


    • Well, we would all be better off as something else. There is always one step up, one step in. I have friends that make moderate to high amounts of money doing things they love. But I don’t know anyone who makes a lot of money for long in something they hate!
      BUt people do work all the time that isn’t the centre of their lives. A postgrad degree can help her find a place in business or government, if she can get a chance to position herself so that the employer knows what her skill set is.
      I want to be a professor. If, when I am finished, all doors are closed, we will either renovate or find another direction. Both will probably be painful.


  8. jubilare says:

    “It is not the reality for most of us in Generation X or Y. We are vocational nomads, born into an age of financial instability and fated to a continuing narrative of austerity.”
    Powerfully said. My parents are horrified by what my brother and I face. Of the two of us, I’m the most “successful” as a librarian with an MLIS (I make enough to sustain myself working 2 jobs. Barely. The only savings I have are my government pension and equity in my little house). He has a PHD, loves teaching, is getting ready to publish a book of his academic research, and yet while he’s lucky enough to be an instructor (a step above adjunct), he’s been unable, so far, to become a full professor.
    I think the university will survive, and grow strong again, but in the mean time, the outlook is grim.

    “I, personally, will find my way.” Yes, you will. *hugs* May you find the encouragement you need, too.


  9. I’ve been following your posts for perhaps a year now, and what comes to my mind over and over with each reading is how good a teacher you must be (and are to me). I can only tell you I am sad too.


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