Time for Idealism : Teaching Careers Attract the Altruistic

Susan Knight had heard all about the pitfalls of teaching--the low pay, lack of respect and occupational hazards such as burnout. Moreover, when she decided to become an educator, jobs were scarce, particularly in her specialty, English.

But none of that mattered to Knight.

“The benefits of teaching are less material to me,” said Knight, 23, a poised and self-confident Occidental College graduate who will begin teaching at Glendale High School in the fall. “What is more important is my happiness at work. (Teaching) is a challenge. If you like challenges, which I do, it’s fantastic.”

Knight’s altruism is typical of students who enter the field, according to Occidental College Assistant Prof. Grace Grant, who has trained teachers for 10 years. “Students still go into teaching because of something in their heart. They say there’s something rewarding in that experience that is not available in other careers.”


Knight said she flirted with the idea of becoming a lawyer. But in her sophomore year she discarded that notion and settled on teaching. It was a natural choice.

“I’ve always worked with students. My jobs growing up were always tutoring and counseling jobs, except,” she said with a grin, “a brief interlude at the May Co.” She also had plenty of role models--two aunts and an uncle who are teachers, and a high school instructor who was “very influential.”

Majored in English Literature

As an undergraduate at Occidental she majored in English literature. This year she has been a student teacher at Pasadena High School, where she helped instruct two 11th-grade advanced-placement classes and a combined 9th- and 10th-grade reading class. Later this month she will earn her master’s degree and will be fully credentialed to teach high school English.


Like many other teaching candidates entering the job market this year, Knight found school district recruiters eager to talk to her and expound on the virtues of their respective schools.

“I received follow-up letters constantly from districts that spoke to me, and I got calls morning, noon and night. They said, ‘Please get your placement file to us as soon as possible. We are interested in you as a candidate.’ It was great, really an ego-building experience.”

Last month she received job offers from the Pasadena, Burbank and Glendale school districts. She said each district offered similar pay and benefits--a starting salary of about $19,000 and comprehensive medical and dental plans. And each had ethnically diverse student populations, an important factor in her mind.

“I was trained in schools that had a mix of students culturally. So that’s what I looked for,” she said.


Impressed by Writing Program

What persuaded her to choose Glendale was its staff development offerings, in particular a UCLA writing program open to teachers. Knight said she loves to write--she was a writing tutor at Occidental--and welcomes the opportunity to sharpen her skills.

At Glendale High School she will be teaching many students who have limited proficiency in the English language because it is not their native tongue. It will be a challenge, she observed, to learn how to “rework methods of teaching writing” to those students.

“It’s a very idealistic time in my life,” she said. “You have all these visions of education and what you can do. And sometimes it’s hard because so many teachers are burned out . . . and don’t experiment anymore. That’s depressing to see. But my supervisors at Pasadena High are very optimistic. They think of teaching as a lifetime career, not just something that you do for a few years.


“That’s an idea that I want to follow.”