The Teaching Trap

I work as a teaching assistant at an Adaptive Education school. It’s my first full-time, “real world”, job and I started it immediately after graduating Emerson College last December. When applying for the position I had personal experience with mental illness and volunteer work with the organization Best Buddies, but my degree  is a BFA in Writing, Literature, & Publishing with a focus in Poetry and my Minor is in History. The thought of becoming a teacher or professor has always been in the back of my mind, but something that I imagined would be a long way down the line.

Yet, after getting this entry level, if you will, position in the school, I find myself being pushed by my family and some of my friends to pursue teaching sooner rather than later. And in their defense, their reasons are pretty good: pursuing a career with tons of fellowships and scholarships for graduate school, postponing my current loans during grad school, starting a career at a young age, applying for loan forgiveness as a teacher. All of these are incredibly rational points and the career path is realistic. But if I commit to becoming a teacher, to pursuing a Master’s in Education and then state licensing, I would be sacrificing my poetry. I understand that’s about as much of a generic 22 year old statement as any reader might hope to find on a blog, but bear with me.

For people who go to college intending to teach, that’s great, in fact, that’s better than great it’s inspiring. Furthermore, I’m not ruling out the legitimacy of falling in love with something a person might do on a whim. But in my case, instead of immediately pursing a degree in education, I’d like to work this teaching assistant position until I build up publishing credentials and can study for my GRE’s, then enter into an MFA program or a Master’s program in English, Comparative Literature, or some other field relevant to my passion. And that seems like just as legitimate of a plan. Albeit, I’ll be living check to check for a few years longer, but I’ll be taking the next step in my artistic career. It might only be the ego in me that thinks my time would be better spent pursuing poetry, but what I know for a fact is that I’m finding it more and more difficult to muster the strength and concentration to write after working a full time education job. And this is a position that I can keep separate from my personal life, so I can’t imagine the difficulty of writing with the commitment of a teacher. By which I mean bringing home work to grade, creating lesson plans, communicating with parents, etc. all of which is done, not during paid school hours, but on personal time.

The looming shadow of student debt has already sent many of my friends and fellow 2014 graduates who had no initial intention of becoming educators on the teaching trajectory. People graduating with English and Creative Writing degrees are entering right into Graduate school to become English teachers, Ph.D programs to become professors, or else committing to volunteer programs such as AmeriCorps or Teach for America, because they don’t know how else to make a living. Maybe this is because people scoff at what a person can accomplish with a liberal arts or humanities degree. I’m guilty of it too, the self-deprecating humor of a college senior who is realizing all too quickly that the world doesn’t care about his attempts to reinvent the sonnet. Or does it? I see so many state and government sponsored ads saying things to the effect of: “The nation needs teachers”. Which is certainly true, but the nation also needs innovators.

Rather than wasting time joking about how dismal my employment opportunities were, I should have joked that everyone needs to communicate effectively, so as a writer it’ll be easy pickings. The dejected post-modern sense of irony has sapped the confidence out of some of the most brilliant people I know. I titled this piece “The Teaching Trap”, not because the job itself is a trap, but because the mentality that leads many young people, and young writers especially, into this career right away is one. And obviously this isn’t only detrimental to the people who, as a last resort, pursue careers in education, but also to the students they will be teaching who deserve someone who is passionate about being in front of a class. Because passion is the only economic stimulus we, as a country, can count on. If people as a whole continue playing it safe and only doing what it takes to get by then our economy and society, by extension, will only get by, remain stagnant, and won’t grow. This is why I intend to follow through with poetry.

I’d still like to teach at some point in my life. It’s been an exhilarating and inspiring experience just being a TA. I’ve already learned so much from the students I work with, that the job is a re-education in and of itself. Also the performer in me loves being in front of a class because it’s a lot like being on stage and a lesson plan is just another kind of set list. But I want a life and experiences to teach from first and I want to be able to fully commit myself to teaching, because otherwise no one, myself included, will learn a thing.


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One Response to The Teaching Trap

  1. says:

    This is a great perspective. I find myself struggling with the same thoughts. However, there are some things I like to keep in mind, personally, whenever I ponder exactly what I’m doing with my life right now. First is that students need teachers…emphasis on the s. Education is a process made up of many teachers and, ideally, they should be from all different ages, experiences, backgrounds, etc. It’s just as important for a student to see a twenty-something-year-old as their teacher as it is for them to see a fifty-something-year-old…as long as the teachers are good, work in collaboration with other teachers, have a sharable knowledge of what they’re teaching, and offer real inspiration and motivation to the students. Second, is that, while it is important to never underestimate the time commitment of teaching, it is also important to remember that you can always make anything work…it may necessitate sacrifices in other areas of your life, but creating art doesn’t have to be the first casualty. Finally, what if our perception of the order changes? What if we didn’t think the natural order is: first you must art, then you must teach? What if, instead, you teach in your community (wherever you choose to make it), learn how to manage, succeed at managing, really take in your students and their experiences, really interact with parents and then use those experiences to become a better artist not only in product, but in practice? Living Practice, not simply Quantifiable Product of recognition, publication, or even, degree. That being said, it is certainly a fine balance. I don’t think one should use teaching as a means to and end (as some TFA-ers do), but instead a progression in imbuing education (in the philosophical sense) into everything we do. This requires young people who are responsible, considerate, peaceful, and patient. It also requires an understanding that teaching is a monastic order that is life-lasting, and it manifests in many different forms. — Al

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