College Students to Veteran Educators: Quit Telling Us to Avoid Teaching

Members of the Young Teachers Collective believe the profession is worth fighting for.

Stephanie Rivera speaking at TEDxNYED event in June 2013. (Photo: YouTube)

Mar 26, 2015· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Last January, after yet another veteran teacher warned her against becoming an educator, aspiring teacher Stephanie Rivera sat down at her computer and pounded out a blog post: “To All the Teachers Telling Us to Not Go Into Teaching, Stop.”

I know that many of the current teachers encourage us not to enter the field because they want to protect us. Thanks, but no thanks. We don’t need your protection, we need you to stay strong and stand up for what you know is right,” wrote Rivera. “We don’t need your protection, we need you to stand up for the future of your students, the future of our profession—and thank you to all of the current educators out there who have been doing this tirelessly. We need to know when we enter the classroom, you will stand fearlessly beside us.”

Rivera, now a graduate student studying education at Rutgers University in New Jersey, didn’t realize it at the time, but the post would become a mission statement.

“I got a flood of emails,” she says. “ ‘Thank you for writing this post! I thought I was the only person who felt that way!’ ” The feedback, she says, led her to realize that aspiring teachers “shouldn’t be working individually, but we should come together” as a unified force to push education reform.

A year later, that idea and her blog post have become the blueprint for the Young Teachers Collective, an effort that Rivera and six other aspiring educators launched last week. The group is a space for idealistic teachers in training who want reform to start in the classroom, not the boardroom.

Blending advocacy and vision with support-group nurturing and old-fashioned union-style organization, YTC calls for a “common vision for the future of education.” The initiative also hopes to “provide young teachers with both a sense of hope and tools on how to fight for a better education system.” That includes helping educators develop “political consciousness” about how systemic problems in the nation’s education system contribute to poverty, crime, and disenfranchisement.

“A lot of us have a much bigger vision for the future of education,” says Rivera, who counts the die-hard membership in the collective at about 16 individuals across the nation so far. Unlike frustrated teachers who’d rather quit than challenge what seems like an intractable bureaucracy, “we feel it’s more important to stand up and fight for education,” she says.

But in an era of controversial, sweeping education reform such as Race to the Top and the Common Core State Standards, Rivera’s fight looks like an uphill battle.

Teachers nationwide are grappling with top-down reforms that come from local politicians as well as from the U.S. Department of Education. The litany of complaints about the current state of education ranges from a pressure-filled teach-to-the-test culture—which is tied to mandates such as No Child Left Behind—to crumbling, inner-city classrooms that often lack the basics, including books, student discipline, and quality teachers. But school administrators have issues too: shrinking budgets, demanding unions, and pressure from parents and politicians to meet ever-higher expectations.

Yet where experienced teachers and some administrators feel hopeless, Rivera sees an opportunity for social as well as educational reform. She believes YTC has the potential to revolutionize education by fighting for the right kind of reform—one that involves teachers, not just bureaucrats.

To accomplish that, Rivera and the other YTC founders plan to host webinars, monthly Twitter chats and Google Hangouts, and workshops on college campuses. They also intend to blog regularly on the YTC website about education issues and the challenges of being an aspiring teacher.

True change, she says, comes by addressing systemic problems hampering public education, such as poverty, unequal school funding, and burned-out educators. Though the education reform landscape is littered with the remains of passionate young idealists, Rivera—who’s wanted to be a teacher since age three—believes her time is now.

She points to teachers and principals who’ve rejected salaries tied to test scores, educators who have recognized that learning happens during downtime, students walking out of class to protest seemingly rigid federal guidelines, and a growing number of parents and school districts boycotting standardized tests.

“I definitely agree that it’s a challenging time” to enter teaching, she admits. But then she posed the question that young revolutionaries often pose when planning to fight the powers that be.

“If we’re not in the field—the people who will go in the field for all the right reasons—who’s left? We’d rather go in and lose fighting instead of not even trying at all.”