I wrote this piece a couple of years ago, where I combine the deep pain of my own vocational journey with the job trends of the generation. It’s really a tough road ahead if you want to become a teacher–either in the university setting or the K-12 classroom. I wonder if I was being a bit too honest here, but I thought the lesson was a good one.
Though I can’t yet put statistics on it, my work in labour market research is beginning to lead me to think that school teachers may have a bit more hope at finding their way into classrooms. I don’t think this is the case yet for North American and British universities; it’s just not stable enough. But I do have hope for those of you who would like to shape young minds to transform their worlds. So I repost this essay, remembering the essentials of what we do as teachers.
One 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.
Some 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.
This film comes at me from all sides. I too am a frustrated artist, whose manuscripts moulder—if digital files can be described as mouldering—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 permanent space in front of a white board is far more elusive than a listing on Amazon.
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. Or it was. 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.
It 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 outside of the art world is this so acute as for those who would love to be teachers, whether in the university and college world, or even 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 young Mr. Holland—we now have young scholars desperate to find their way to a classroom.
But there are no new classrooms available.
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. You can often find a space teaching on a First Nations reserve or overseas–places where they need longevity but seldom find it.
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 that makes it difficult for most to get a job. Many passionate teachers are permanent substitutes or are 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 (as important as boardrooms and assembly lines are).
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 generation. 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, despite just turning 40. As one student described it, Baby Boomers are clinging to their cubicles for dear life.
At 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–shocking in the greatest age since the generations of Newton and Einstein–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 pure 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.
And 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 as a society 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. In 2015, I made $15,500, and filled out my salary with other kinds of work. The future doesn’t look bright.
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.
If 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.
So if our educational institutions—our small elementary schools and large high schools and our centuries-old universities—are not employing emerging educators, it is our students who will miss out.
Moreover, to bring it back to this particular moment, if schools aren’t including emerging scholars and teachers, they aren’t including the emerging voices of 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.