Is it still worthwhile to be a teacher?

The upheaval in Indiana’s education system has been hammering away at teachers for a while now. But most still say they can’t imagine doing anything else.

Posted on June 13, 2014 at 6:11 p.m.

Teaching has long been known as a career that doesn't bring home the most bacon.

Elkhart teacher Jim McClain said he’ll never complain about pay, because “we all knew, going in, how much we would make — or we should have.” 

But the trade-off was always the chance to impact kids — to help shape a future generation.

Local teachers worry about how education in Indiana is changing. There was Common Core, then Indiana state standards. There’s the new ISTEP, and changing teacher evaluations.

Related: Indiana needs to get its education act together

Teachers have plenty to grouse about, but they say they’re in it for the long haul for one reason: the kids.

Why it’s worth it

Jennifer Wakeman pulled one handwritten letter off the top of a big stack sitting on her kitchen table.

“Mrs. Wakeman,” she read aloud, “You are the world’s best teacher.”

She blinked back tears and shook the letter for emphasis — “This is what is worth it,” she said. “You won’t hear it from the parents, you won’t get a monetary bonus for being a highly effective teacher ... or a trophy or a special plaque, but you’re going to get these.”

Wakeman has taught elementary school at Woodland in Elkhart since 1997. Teaching, she said, gives her the opportunity to be everything she’s ever wanted to be.

Every day is different: one day she’s inventing math songs and dance moves that her students beg for, over and over again. Some days she’s a surrogate parent to the kids in her class, or a nurse.

“Whatever they do down there, at the state, it’s not going to change what I do,” she said firmly. “I still have my own things, I still add my own gimmicks and my own tricks of the trade to get my point across.”

Concord High School English and journalism teacher Chris Judson said he advises his student teachers to weigh out the pros and cons of the profession.

“It’s still amazingly cool, what you get to do when you step into that classroom,” he said. “I still love the actual job. There’s still that really cool vibe of students who start my class and we have this love/hate relationship. Then we start to get to know each other through the year, and maybe we put some sentences together along the way.”

Jim McClain, who teaches 7th grade math at Pierre Moran Middle School in Elkhart, laughs when he’s asked if he’d ever consider a different job.

“I’m a teacher,” he said, simply. “These things (changing requirements) are cyclical, they come and go, they change names — but the essence of teaching remains. I will still keep changing kids lives every day. I will still keep teaching until the time I retire.”

These teachers hear the news about education changes and they prepare as best they can for what’s coming. But most say they’d rather focus on the kids they have in the classroom now.

They talk about making kids’ eyes light up when they finally, finally understand a concept. They talk of graduations, that moment when someone they've known since fifth grade walks across the stage to get a diploma.

There’s hard things — homeless students, students who don’t have a lot of parental support. 

“Kids don’t show up with full bellies and a bag of notebooks, ready to learn,” Krista Riblet, language arts teacher at North Side Middle School said.

But even with those challenges, she added, “People need to see what’s happening in schools every day, because it’s wonderful.”

Focusing on the good

Teachers also sense that the public perception of what they do is shifting.

Teaching isn't seen as a noble profession anymore, Judson thinks, and there isn't as much public support for education as perhaps there once was.

“I mean, we only won our referendum by 80 votes,” he said, referencing Concord Schools’ close win in a May vote to use more taxpayer dollars for the schools.

“There’s almost this idea that there’s too much being invested in education for ... the payoff,” he added. “There’s almost a devaluation of education.”

Ann Carboneau, who has taught English at Goshen Middle School for 11 years, said there’s too much focus on the negative when it comes to education issues.

“What’s good is really getting lost, unless it’s good and popular, like a charter school or a program everyone can follow,” she said. “Then, that’s celebrated. But the everyday, you’re not hearing about that for the most part. Because it’s not very exciting and it doesn't make people stop.”

Everyday occurrences for Carboneau include watching kids change, right in front of her, from kids who hate to read to kids who are avid borrowers from her classroom library.

Kids who said they don’t like writing take home their writing notebook at the end of the year instead of throwing it away. Their “light goes on” when they present a project and see that others understand what they’re trying to say.

“That, for me, is why I do it,” Carboneau said. “When I’m in my room, when I’m with my kids, everything is great. It’s all the rest of it that makes it hard.”

Follow reporter Lydia Sheaks on Twitter at @LydiaSheaks


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