There were eight around the table.  Six active teachers, a former teacher and one old inquisitive writer.

You can easily figure out which one I was.  We were gathered on the 32nd floor of a downtown Birmingham building and as we finished lunch I began asking questions.  Hey, how else do you learn?  So you pounce when the opportunity arises.

Most were elementary teachers.  One taught high school.  Most had a master’s degree.  One is about to get her doctorate.  One has taught “only” nine years.  One for 30 years and the rest somewhere in between.  They were clearly not amateurs at their profession.

Tell me about your students and their families?

Responses were all over board.  One had a fifth grader this year who is one of six children in his family.  He said that when all the kids get home from school, the parents leave and he and his siblings are on their own.  Some students have extremely involved and supportive parents.  Most don’t.  And though kindergarten is available to all kids, many enter the first grade having never been.  For them, colors and numbers are foreign concepts.

What is it like to be a teacher these days?

“It doesn’t seem to matter how much I do,” said one, “it is never enough to please everyone.”  “We get more and more piled on us each year,” said another.  To a person they feel unappreciated and undervalued.  “Most people have no clue what it is like to teach these days,” one stated.  Interestingly, no one mentioned their salary.

And then the $64 question.

If you were starting your career over, would you teach?

No.  Not a single one would choose teaching as their career path.  “I love my students, my school and my principal,” said one, “but I never suggest anyone become a teacher nowadays.”   Heads bopped up and down around the table.  Too much stress.  Too big of a workload.  Unreasonable expectations.

At this point everyone had finished their lunch and the old inquisitive writer rose to speak to the group.  He wanted to let them know that their work is valued and is the foundation for whatever future Alabama has.

But on the 100-mile drive home he kept thinking about the brief exchange and better understanding the very real challenges that lie ahead.  Not the challenges of new computers or new this and that, but the challenge of who will comfort and cajole and encourage all the young minds that march off to class each August.

We love to talk about “workforce development” in regards to education.  But the context is always who will we hire to run a robot at Hyundai or a computer at Airbus or a welding machine at Austal.  We seem to pay little attention to who will be there to nurture that crop of budding robot operators or computer jockeys.

It is an issue we must address.