NEW YORK — It has been a year since Bush signed into law his No Child Left Behind Act, which addresses, among other things, the need to attract and retain talented teachers. The act requires schools to find highly qualified teachers, but does little to address what those of us who work with kids well know: People working with youth don't feel respected. That makes it hard to stick with the field.
I started working with kids four years ago. I had just completed a master's degree in writing and was enjoying a peaceful, if solitary, gig as a research assistant. Eager for more interaction, I answered an ad to edit a teen-written magazine.
During my interview, young writers in the magazine's newsroom, sporting doo rags and piercings, carefully typed. Periodically, a writer bounded into an adult editor's office. The ensuing discussion matched the liveliest of my graduate school seminars. It seemed journalism in its highest form was unfolding: the typically voiceless - teens in this case - speaking and being heard.
But once I took the job, I wondered if I was selling myself short. My peers pointed out that writers with advanced degrees generally write or teach college; they don't work with kids. I recalled that my mother, a former high school teacher, had continually wondered out loud about how much wider her career choices might have been had she been born in my generation.
I stuck with the kids. I've loved working with my tough young writers, and I've also become a better editor.
But my ambivalence persists. Work involving youth is considered good, empathetic work - but not serious, smart work. In surveys ranking jobs by status, says Richard Ingersoll, professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, "teaching definitely ranks below all the traditional occupations."
Seventy percent of teachers surveyed nationwide felt their profession didn't receive enough respect. Lack of respect or praise from school administrators and in general were the second and third most frequently cited reasons for quitting given by former California teachers polled.
Craving prestige, promotions, and better pay, many of my colleagues have sought employment in the strictly adult world, only to learn that their work with kids is a career liability. Potential employers, they say, express interest primarily in jobs they've held that don't involve youth. A headhunter told one friend, a computer programmer, to remove from his résumé the year he ran a computer lab for inner-city teens. The headhunter thought it would look "strange" to employers, and could cost him jobs.
"A good teacher is invisible," an elementary school teacher complained to me shortly after quitting her job. "No one knows what they do except their students."
Many of us in our late 20s and 30s who stumbled upon youth work almost by chance suffer from the teacher's version of a biological clock - the fear that the longer we stay at our jobs, the harder it will be to gain work in the more respectable "real world." Meanwhile, the No Child Left Behind Act applauds middle-aged professionals who leave skyscrapers for schools - the implication being that anyone who can hang on in a corporation can also teach.
Is it any wonder that nearly half of all teachers quit in their first five years on the job?
The answer to attracting and keeping skilled teachers isn't only weeding out the waywards and luring corporate executives to replace them. It's also finding ways to raise the respect granted teachers and youth workers. We need to recognize that careers involving youth are legitimate ones, and that youth workers develop real skills on the job. Schools and youth programs need to find meaningful ways to recognize employees, and allow them room for professional growth. We need to support teachers' fight for better wages. And - cheesy as it may sound - why not applaud TV shows like Boston Public and Judging Amy for portraying smart, thoughtful adults who work with kids and are challenged by their jobs?
Until then, those of us working with a marginalized group will suffer from something many of us haven't experienced since being kids ourselves - the feeling of being misunderstood, of being marginalized, as well. Worse, the country will continue losing its children's best teachers and advocates to the careers we all hold in higher regard.
• Kendra Hurley is editor of Foster Care Youth United, a national magazine written by and for teens in foster care.