Why become a teacher?

2013 Candidate For Mayor | 3/9/2012, 11:49 a.m.

I did have one great advantage though: An unconventional colleague, a 20-year veteran teacher, took me under his wing and mentored me unofficially and made me realize what it took to become a better teacher.

During my first week in 1986 as an English teacher at Stuyvesant High School, my alma mater, a charming English teacher named Frank McCourt--later to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning memoirist--told me: "Get out while you can. It's five shows a day and the toughest audience you'll ever face."

He was being slightly cheeky, but his admonition was repeated by other battle-weary teachers there: Pursue your passion, journalism, they told me. This is not a career that holds great prestige or financial promise for someone like you.

A peer who worked with me at the New York Times on weekends looked down at me condescendingly when I told her I was a teacher during the week at a public high school. "Why would you do that?" she asked with a mixture of pity and scorn.

But watching McCourt light up the classroom--we combined our classes occasionally on Fridays--was a true delight and enlightening experience. He was not worried about evaluations or teaching kids to a mind-numbing test. He forced them to think, to describe the quotidian details of their lives. (Assignment: What did you eat for dinner last night? Describe in minute detail.) He made students write the most creative excuse notes they could come up with. Students wrote about their romances, read their work aloud, critiqued each other, laughed and generally learned a heck of a lot about life, the importance of great writing and great literature and left his classroom eagerly anticipating the next day's lesson, passionately becoming real thinkers and real writers and real students of literature.

Today, the Frank McCourts of the world, if they even ventured into the classroom to pursue a teaching career, would likely be crushed and neutered by the new systems that evaluate teachers by rubrics that can't quantify motivation and inspiration.

This is what needs to enter the school debate: How do we start attracting, and retaining, the next generation of Frank McCourts? Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott and UFT President Michael Mulgrew, this is the real challenge in education today.

Please evaluate this clarion call.

Our kids can't wait.

Tom Allon, a Democrat and Liberal candidate for mayor in 2013, is a former Stuyvesant High School English teacher and is now the president/CEO of Manhattan Media.