In the fall of her senior year at Penn, Jess King (C ’15) asked herself if education was the most valuable thing she could do with her diploma.
“Hell yeah, it is” she said. “I’m going to be a part of making sure that the kids who I teach will someday have the opportunities and the skills to get to be on a campus like Penn’s.”
On an admissions tour of the campus, prospective students learn that Penn was founded in order to educate young men for “productive lives in public service.” It is this ideal, more than the promise of “deep exploration of the liberal arts with a chance for pre–professionalism” or “an integrated living and learning experience” that leads aspiring educators to choose Penn despite the prevalent stigma that surrounds the profession. In the Class of 2015, seven percent of all graduates employed full time entered the field of education.
Jess was one of these approximate 106 graduates. She came to Penn for a major in Communications and a host of education–related extracurricular activities that would allow her to enter the field. Now, she teaches at a Public Charter Renaissance School in Camden, NJ under two other Penn graduates—Director of Operations Mary Kate Miller and Principal Natalie Cooper.
Teaching, however, is not Jess’ long–term goal; ultimately, she hopes to work on the operational side of the field. “Business is what I’m really good at and what I really like,” she said. “But I don’t feel like I’m giving of my worth if I’m not impacting schools and students and families in one way or another, so I will never leave the field of education.”
It seems counter–intuitive that the environment of a prestigious institution of higher education could support a stigma surrounding that very field. “I see people looking down on me when I say that I want to go into teaching,” said Sarah Simon (C ’17), a Political Science major who also hopes to develop education policies in the future. “They say 'Aww, that’s so nice, you want to work with children.’"
There are many possible reasons for this stigma.
“We’ve all been in high school,” offers Jonathan Goulet (E '05). “We think we know what teaching is about because we were students. But it’s a totally different thing to actually be a teacher.”
At Penn, we tend to measure someone's status by different qualities about their job: how difficult it is, how time–consuming, how lucrative. We perceive teachers as the ones who fell into the field after they couldn't make a career out of their major, who go home at 3:30 p.m. and enjoy weekends and frequent vacations. Combine that with the fact that they make so little money, compared to peers who head to Wall Street or Silicon Valley, and that they're part of a public service that has arguably failed with a national scale, and you've got a recipe for low status at Penn.
But these assumptions are just that: assumptions.
“We don’t go home before 5:30 p.m.,” said Jess, who now works an average of 10–13 hours per day, a significant decrease from the 90 per week she worked for her first seven weeks on the job. “Ever.”
“You take [teaching] home with you every single night,” said Alexa Bryn (C '13), who now teaches English at The Beacon School in New York. “You take it home with you on the weekends. It’s really all encompassing emotionally and intellectually.”
“[Teaching] is baptism through fire,” said Jess, who points out that the skills one must possess and develop in order to be a successful teacher—public speaking and presence, the ability to react and adapt to different needs and expectations, proficiency in using real time data to influence decisions in the moment—are useful in any job, financial or otherwise.
But there is no arguing that teachers make significantly less money than, for example, a person working at an investment bank. “I was always separated from that pressure as an English major,” said Alexa. “But I certainly felt it around me.” For Alexa, teaching turned out to be a logical career choice because she could pursue her love of literature while still interacting with people on a daily basis.
Jonathan, too, made a logical choice for his first job after college. A Computer Science and Math double major, he spent three years working in software development. “It was a good job,” he said. “It made good money, it provided chances to advance my career—it basically met all the requirements of what I was supposed to look for coming out of Penn. But it didn’t mean as much as I was hoping my career would.”
25 years old and out of debt from his student loans, Jonathan switched to a more rewarding career path in 2008. “It would have been a different story if it were years later and I had kids and a house,” he said. “It was certainly a pay cut, but for me [making a lot of money] wasn’t the goal. I don’t ever regret giving up that money to become a teacher.”
“In moments when I feel frustrated that teachers make so little money I remember that it’s also so fulfilling and I feel so lucky to do it” said Alexa. “I would love to make more money but I also feel that I have this great privilege to teach the students that I do.”
Jess spent the summer after her junior year teaching the 10th and 11th grade of a West Philadelphia high school. One day, she realized that a student of hers, Katie*, had been in the bathroom for a while, so she went to find her. Approaching the bathroom, she saw two girls with a reputation for bullying exit and walk away, followed by Katie, now crying.
“Oh God,” she thought. “I hate this. High school sucks. I hate that kids are mean to each other.”
Jess sat down with Katie outside the bathroom. After a few moments, she took a deep breath and began.
“Sweetie, high school isn’t easy for anyone. But I know you’re strong enough to get through it.” Katie looked up at her, then in the direction that the girls had just left.
“No,” she said. “Those girls were comforting me.” She went on to explain that, the previous night, her cousin had been shot point–blank.
“It just shook me to my core that I had the privilege to assume that the worst thing about high school was kids making snide comments behind your back,” said Jess. “That I had the privilege to stay in my safe home with my parents should something tragic happen to me. This was a girl who was in an extracurricular program over the summer who had lost her cousin the night before—and she came to school the next day because school to her represented a safe space.”
“School has the potential for every student to be the safe space that they need,” Jess said. “It became so important to me to become a part of that safe space for as many kids as I could be.”
All things considered, the teaching profession is a highly suitable career for a Penn graduate. It upholds our founder’s ideal of Penn graduates pursuing public service as well as most of the more modern ideals our culture fosters—hard work, long hours and a chance for career advancement. Not to mention that it is extremely worthwhile even in the eyes of typical Penn students, as they would not invest all the time, money and effort that a Penn diploma represents if they did not believe in the power of education. And they wouldn’t be here at all without the rigor of the teachers who gave them that education.
“If you think about the teachers from K–12 who really stuck out to you, you know it’s because they valued the development of your character and held the bar even higher,” said Jess.
“No one gets to Penn with teachers who sit around and leave at 3:30 p.m. on the dot.”