In a blinked-and-you-missed-it moment of President Obama’s State of the Union speech last week, while discussing the dismal education system, he encouraged young people to choose teaching careers.
“To every young person listening tonight who’s contemplating their career choice,” he said fervently, “If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation, if you want to make a difference in the life of a child — become a teacher. Your country needs you.”
On Monday Education Secretary Arne Duncan took this appeal on the road, along with filmmaker Spike Lee, to a town hall meeting at Atlanta’s Morehouse College. Specifically, they called for black men, who make up less than two percent of all teachers, to enter our nation’s classrooms. The event was part of the Education Department’s broader TEACH campaign to recruit dedicated minority college students. Duncan held a similar town hall last November at Howard University, where he was joined by singer John Legend.
“With more than one million teachers expected to retire in the coming years, we have a historic opportunity to transform public education in America by calling on a new generation to join those already in the classroom,” said Secretary Duncan.
A big piece of the TEACH campaign pitch is that, for talented, dedicated black college students, teaching is a moral imperative. With nearly 50 percent of African-Americans dropping out of high school, Duncan contends, teaching is a way to be part of the solution. It’s an opportunity to give back to your community. It’s a way to make a difference for young boys who desperately need positive role models in their lives.
Inspiring as this all may be…and as much as everybody loves the scrappy underdog story of Mr. Clark in Lean on Me… it’s a tough sell. With teachers earning notoriously low wages, having abysmally slow salary growth, and doing tremendously hard, draining work, joining the teaching field can be an unappealing prospect for even the most idealistic of young folks.
To sweeten the pot, Secretary Duncan is touting a few incentives. Student loan debts will be erased after a graduate serves as a teacher for ten years, for example, and the Education Department offers teaching grants of $4,000 a year for education majors.
We’ll see whether this is enough to draw the enlistment numbers Duncan seeks, but MSNBC contributor Jeff Johnson wants to help him get there. After the Morehouse College town hall today, he announced that he’s leading the “5 by 2015” task force — a five-year initiative to recruit, train and place 80,000 African-American male teachers by 2015. (No word yet on whether Johnson plans to become a teacher himself.)
So, what do you think? Would you consider becoming a teacher?
Cynthia Gordy is the Washington reporter for The Root.