A week after moving to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand to take up a teaching post, I visited the Sunday night Walking Street Market. The market bisects the ancient city with vendors peddling everything from brilliant red Thai silk scarves to knitted bumblebee-colored dog sweaters to egg-parceled Pad Thai. As a young teacher with meager pocket change I attempted to haggle with the merchants: “A little bit less please, I am a teacher, I don’t have much money.” They shook their heads and laughed in disbelief that a teacher could claim to be poor.
And then, they nodded with gratitude.
To be a teacher in Thailand is to be respected and, comparatively speaking, well paid. As it is in much of Asia, teacher is an honored title. My very first week in Thailand coincided with Wai Kru – the national Teacher’s Day, when students and families put on elaborate performances to honor their teachers. I found myself on a stage along with the rest of the English department before hundreds of students who had prepared speeches and elaborate flower offerings in our honor.
A year later, when I returned to the US, I entered a very different kind of school system.
“Oh you teach 6th grade?!” “That’s a really tough age.” “I wouldn’t be able to do that.” “We need more young people like you.” These are the kinds of responses I receive on telling people I teach inner-city middle school. They are impressed, and often disbelieving that I would take such a job.
Fifty years ago it was fashionable for young Americans to enter the Peace Corp, packing their bags for the dusty cities of Tanzania and the rural slopes of Chile, giving up creature comforts to devote two years to spreading democracy and education.
Today, teaching has become a domestic Peace Corps. Last year more than 50,000 recent college graduates applied to Teach For America (TFA), Citizen Schools and other similar programs. More than 8,000 are chosen. They pack their bags not for international hubs, but for the inner cities of New York and Baltimore and Boston, or the rural river towns along the Mississippi Delta, ready, like their predecessors, to devote two years of service.
My friends and I, in cities across the country, have exchanged college parties for late nights grading papers and planning lessons. We balance small checkbooks and, to make ends meet, some of my colleagues rely on food stamps. We arrive at school early to proctor exams and devote time on the weekends to calling students’ parents.
In educational organizations, teaching is described in the language of service. In the 2010 documentary “Waiting For Superman”, director Davis Guggenheim likens classrooms to trenches in a war. Teaching is akin to military service.
The attitude is commendable. But the situation is not sustainable.
Looking just at TFA, a recent study showed that 50% leave the classrooms as soon as their two-year fellowship concludes. By year three, 80% have left for other jobs, other professions.
These statistics do not phase organizations like TFA, whose stated goal is not necessarily to train a teacher corps, but rather a cohort of young professionals who will carry lessons learned in the public schools to the power worlds of Wall Street and politics.
But when teaching is marketed to college graduates as community service and an honorable sacrifice, does teaching cease to be considered a respectable career profession?
While we as a nation respect the sacrifice college graduates are making by devoting two years in the classroom, our nation’s prevailing policies, budgets and support systems do not send the message that teaching should be considered a respected profession worth devoting a life to.
Once last year, when returning through Thai customs in Bangkok, the agent stamping my passport discovered that I was a teacher. As he handed me back my passport, he thanked me for being a teacher.
In Thailand teachers are not only respected for their service. The profession itself is considered a respected and prestigious choice for a life-long career.
As a recent college graduate myself, I see friends accept Wall Street consulting positions, secure places at law schools and medical schools in the country. And even though I am secure in my desire to continue a career in education, a tiny voice remains: “Is teaching enough? Should I be striving for a more powerful, a more esteemed profession?”
Last year my Thai students asked me to teach them a bit about America. So, I slipped in – between units on grammar and pronunciation – a lesson on American city slang.
Two weeks ago, as the school year in Boston came to a close, I taught my middle schoolers a little about the Kingdom of Thailand. We discussed the monarchy (including that the Thai King was born in Cambridge). We talked about Thai food and learned a few words of the Thai language. I then decided to teach my students how to bow: a half bow to friends, thumb to the chin for teachers, thumb to the nose for the principal.
In the cafeteria the next day I was waylaid by a group of my students. “Ms. Lander, Ms. Lander” Hands together, thumbs at their chin they all bowed. Smiling, I put my own hands together and bowed back at them in return.