Appreciate a Teacher

As always, remember that John’s book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

On Saturday I had the honor of being the commencement speaker at the University of Michigan’s School of Education. With an audience of 394 men and women who had earned their degrees and their families and friends, I focused on the opportunities — not the challenges — facing them. Here’s an excerpt.

‘For all the attacks on teachers and the bad news from Wisconsin, New Jersey, Florida, Ohio and elsewhere, something wonderful is happening here. Teaching is now front and center in the education reform debate. It used to be testing, but now it’s teaching. Everyone from the President to Bill Gates acknowledges that teachers matter.

Time was, there was no national dialogue because school was not about teaching, not even for teachers. Teaching was just what some people did to make a living. Today, it’s much more than that.

It’s a hard time to be a teacher. But I also think there’s never been a better time to become a teacher.

I want to convince you that teachers could be — should be — in the catbird seat. The bottom line for school these days is that “Teachers rule!” Almost nobody thinks they can overhaul education anymore with sweeping programs, standardized “teacher proof” curricula, or better tests.

What’s more, you teachers are an army.

One out of every 100 Americans is a public school teacher. It’s actually slightly more than that: 3.2 million teachers, 309 million Americans.

And you are a young army.

In 1987 the mode for ‘years of experience’ was 15 years. That’s right: there were more teachers in their 15th year than any other year.

The latest mode — believe it or not — was one year! In 2007, our schools had more first-year teachers than any other kind!

The profession will continue to be young, because a huge cohort of 60-year olds is about to retire.


And it’s your youth that gives me the greatest hope, because you are digital natives. You know the power of technology, and you will use its power to create learning opportunities. You won’t let schools remain ‘answer factories’ but will help your students formulate questions, help them dig deeper and deeper. You will fan the flames of their curiosity, instead of trying to make students fit into neat boxes.

But you have to stick together. Be an army. Elevate the profession — so you can be proud of the uniform you wear: teacher!

You have to insist that what matters is not how late you can get there in the morning, how early you can leave in the afternoon, or how much warning the principal has to give you before she can come in and watch you teach.

That’s trade union stuff.

You have to organize to demand a role in selecting and designing curriculum. You need opportunities to watch each other teach, to collaborate, and you want your evaluations of your students to count at least as much as the score on some bubble test.

Make this happen, and you will have brilliant, satisfying careers.

Let me make a couple of predictions about the career you are embarking upon:

1. Your first situation will probably be ‘sink or swim’ because most administrators don’t seem to know how to develop human capital. Don’t let that happen. Reach out to some veteran teachers even before school starts and ask if you can come to them for advice. Then do it.

2. In the not too distant future, your salary will be, in part, determined by how well your students do academically. This will happen sooner rather than later. The old way of paying teachers based on years on the job and number of graduate credits is on its way out, as it should be.

3. I predict that, if your principal is wise, you will play a part in choosing your colleagues.

4. If we are wise, tests will get better, and your evaluations of your students will count.

However, if these and other changes do not occur, 40% of you will leave the profession, the way 40% now leave in their first five years. That would be a tragedy, because the profession needs men and women like you, people with skills, integrity, good training and a desire to make a difference. Teachers whose mantra is ‘If my students are not learning, then i am not teaching — and I need to do something different.”

Let me close by asking a favor of you. All of you, please close your eyes.

With your eyes closed, picture in your mind’s eye the teacher who meant the most to you.

I know each one of you is being transported back into time, now matter your age, into a classroom with a wonderful teacher.

(I can still see Mr. Sullivan, my high school English teacher, standing in front of us, demanding that we support our argument with examples from the play, or the book, or the poem.)

Now open your eyes, and look at these new graduates. Because in the years to come, when someone like me asks an audience to close their eyes and think of the teacher who changed their lives, that audience will see these young men and women.

Congratulations. Go get ‘em!

27 thoughts on “Appreciate a Teacher

  1. Thank you. I had acute laryngitis and was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get through it, frankly. I began with a joke about my being the ideal graduation speaker–someone who couldn’t talk. They laughed but somehow were then rooting for me to make it. I could feel the positive energy, and that seemed to restore my voice.
    Lovely group, and an impressive Ed School. Have you been there?


    • You have set a wonderful example of a brief, pithy commencement address that will send these graduates out with substantive thoughts to ponder. I think they will always remember your closing “exercise” because you brought your message to them in a very personal way. Well done, John!


  2. There is something profoundly tragic about well intentioned individuals who go into teaching and administration who really want to make a difference. From my personal experience, I believe that this is true of the vast majority of people who go into education. What is sad is that, by and large, these inspired people and the inspirational reformers who also want the best for students, completely fail to comprehend that they are doing great harm because they have bought into a system that is destructive to children and cannot be reformed. Schools are prison-like institutions where students are powerless and taught to be docile and that can never change because schools require social efficiency in order to function. This is also the reason why schools can never be very effective at educating people. Improving the quality and authority of teachers does nothing to affect the fundamentals of the system. I think your spirit is inspired, but your call to action is misguided. You will undoubtedly amass a great deal of support because superficially your message sounds constructive and obvious. This is a lie, though. If one were to consider an institution like slavery that all rational people consider abhorrent, a call to improve the conditions of how slaves are treated sounds constructive too. The problem is that such a call to reform slavery supports the institution of slavery by not challenging its fundamental right to exist. I lament that you do not challenge the fundamentals of school as an institution and have confused the concept of school with the concept of education. The two are not the same. I hope someday you question the nature of schools. Until then, I deeply regret to say that all of your noble work will be fraught with futility even as you think you are making a difference. I apologize for my bluntness, but I have too much respect for you to not be honest. Your support of teachers is well-founded, just keep them far away from schools.


    • Cevin is the producer of “The War on Kids”, a film that tears down schools, often effectively. I don’t share his pessimism. Cevin, I hope you will read my book, The Influence of Teachers, for some evidence of how schools can work. Granted, it ain’t easy, but I don’t see you or anyone else proposing any viable alternatives.


      • I will be ordering your book from Amazon and look forward to reading it.

        While I do believe that others have proposed viable alternatives, I do not feel it is necessary when combating an dysfunctional and oppressive institution. A case in point to conceptualize is slavery. If one could conceive of an “ideal” plantation where slaves receive 3 meals a day, are not punished, families aren’t separated. etc. then all of an individual’s basic needs would be met. In contrast, one can imagine post civil war society with former slaves who cannot get employment and are barely able to find food and have a miserable quality of life. In spite of this, I would argue that the latter scenario is still preferable because of the liberty potential involved with being able to exercise control over one’s destiny. The process is a long one, and our society still has not adequately reconciled the inequities of the past, but it would not have happened without abolition of slavery. To argue that slavery should not be abolished because a viable alternative has not be proposed would have been an accurate statement at that time, but not a moral one and one that lacks comprehension of how societies evolve when they are forced to react.

        The warehousing of children in an oppressive sterile construct where they are deprived of civil rights and forced to be there under threat of violence is a fundamental wrong that does not require an alternative. It is a practice that must be stopped with the understanding that once children are integrated into communities that, as a society, we must deal with that happy consequence in constructive ways.

        The evils of slavery were not restricted to how slaves were treated. All of society was tainted. The same is true for school. Because it is the norm, few appreciate how the institution has eroded culture and made American society in general more alienated and apathetic.

        I consider myself optimistic, actually, because most people hated school when they were there and for good reason. It wasn’t because they were lazy or hated learning as they are told. My efforts are to get people in touch with what they know and feel, rather than what they are indoctrinated with. The party line is that schools are “good,” but that goes against what people experience. I think there is hope and that reformers sap that hope and divert it into perpetuating the status-quo.


  3. Very articulate, inspirational and something for the graduates to think about. For the person who wants the schools to change, I agree and I believe that teacher leaders will do that. Given the support, the tools, the encouragement, the preparation and skills, teachers as leaders of change can make those institutional transformations based on practice, knowledge of human development and how students learn. As for the “trade union stuff,” that is one the vehicles to make it happen in concert with families and the public. With a focus on teaching and learning; not testing and schooling, 2 million plus teachers can make a difference. While none of know what will be the catylst for change; several things are for sure: if teachers can’t pressure the change, it won’t happen; and second, it won’t happen by bashing teachers. As a former public school teacher, I was inspired by John’s words—and he and I don’t always agree. You nailed it baby.


  4. Although I agree with much of your premisses, I completely disagree with two of them.
    1. “The old way of paying teachers based on years on the job and number of graduate credits is on its way out, as it should be.”

    What you say here is that experience and knowledge should not be recognized and should not be paid for. Well, I’ll ask you, in what other profession does that premiss hold? Educational levels are compensated for in every profession! Why should educators be excluded? Especially since educators must bear the expense of their ongoing education — something that other professions provide for their workforce for the good of the company. Consequently, this “old way of paying teachers” should NOT be on its way out at all. Indeed, the teaching profession ought to pick up where every other profession provides for their employees and pay for the ongoing expenses of professional development of the workforce — for the good of the school community. And, conomitantly, pay the salary increases, just as the private workplace does. It’s for the common good.

    2. “I predict that, if your principal is wise, you will play a part in choosing your colleagues.”

    This, of course, leads to nepotism. That was the beauty of the seniority system. It did away with the favoritism of choosing colleagues based on — what? Who likes whom? Who is friendly with whom? Who went to school with whom? We already *know* how well this type of system works. It DID NOT WORK!

    Santianya once said, “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.”
    Your advocacy of these two positions are asking us to be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past once more. It’s a mistake that we do not have to make to change some of the problems in the system.

    Experience, knowledge and seniority *do* matter. We *have* learned from the past. And those of us who have been around long enough are not content to allow ignorance of the past to force us back to those dark places where only the lucky and well connected get and keep jobs. Because, in these two instances, you are wrong. Dead wrong.

    Deborah Krous


    • Deborah,
      We disagree, but I think that our views may be closer than you think. I hope you will read my book, The Influence of Teachers, particularly the chapter that deals with seniority. I argue that seniority matters, unless and until there are protections against the ‘isms’ (nepotism and favoritism).
      And I did not say that experience and training would be overlooked in setting salaries, merely that they would soon be only a part of the equation.


  5. Fascinating comments and an intriguing address. Congratulations on being asked to make the speech and glad you were able to get through it.

    After 41 years as a urban public school teacher, administrator, parent, PTA president, researcher and advocate, I’ve concluded that there is no single answer, and that research and history are not unanimous about what will work effectively with every youngster. I respectfully disagree with Deborah Krous’s conclusions. But unquestionably there are instances of the problems that she describes. I’ve also seen, for example, instances where faculty helping to select co-workers has helped produce extremely effective public schools.

    Learning, teaching and schooling are not the same, and schooling can be oppressive. It also can be liberating. Teachers and other educators can have a huge positive impact. Thanks for encouraging young people to work toward that goal, John.


  6. VERY well said! As an education instructor at Kent State, I have the privilege of teaching the next generation of teachers. They are absolutely amazing! They are smart – very smart, lots of them had been in gifted programs and/or AP classes. They are good in their hearts and truly want to teach all children. They are not afraid of the “bad schools”. In fact – they relish the challenge. They understand the complexities of education, the politics, the problems and still they wouldn’t do anything else. I am energized by them. The next generation of children will be in very good hands.
    Your writing, your journalism, and your new book are excellent. I look forward to hearing and reading more! Keep it up, John.


  7. Amazing…. It was not that long ago I too was that student who was “energized,” who “understood the complexities of urban schools” and “energized my professors.” And after over 20 years teaching, the last 12 of them in the urban district, (due to residency rules and my family), I understand it more than ever. And I’ve yet to see, in urban or suburban districts, where faculty selection of co-workers produces anything “effective” as Joe Nathan states. Rather, it is more of the “Hey, I know this guy/gal… you’ll like him/her…” deal that gets someone hired. And I’m not talking about personal experience.

    John, you can argue that seniority matters until the “isms” are taken care of until the cows come home. The *facts* are, those *isms* are coming back with a vengence due to the “reform” movement! In our district, every teacher has been fired for “flexibility.” We are in Providence, RI. Some have recently been rehired in the last two days. Others now will have an opportunity to meet “informally” with principals to “see if we are a fit.” If so, we can “decide if we want to work with each other.” No objective interview — even though we’ve been fired illegally to begin with and there is a lawsuit in place as a result of that fact. Let’s just “buddy up” and “make a deal” while our contract has expired!

    Do you *really* think this is the way to hire professionals? Do you mean to tell me that this is *nothing* but nepotism at its worse? Because, *that* is what’s happening do to the “deforming” of education in the cities in the US. We *have* gone “back to the future.” And it is not a pretty picture.

    So, go on believing that seniority doesn’t matter. Go on believing that favoritism and “isms” are over with. They are not, and you are living in a dream world. Look at Providence, RI. That is what the *real* world has come to. Nepotism and every *ism* you could think of in your worst nightmare. we are there. It *is* 1984.

    Deborah Krous


  8. Wonderful, inspiring comments, John!
    Wish I’d known you were in Ann Arbor last weekend. I was too.
    Cheers, Elizabeth


    • What were you up to? You wouldn’t have wanted to see me anyway, because I was Dr. Germs and am still recovering


  9. John,
    I also wish I’d know you were speaking at the School of Ed commencement. I was at the Big House in the morning for my son’s college graduation. One question: do you remember who spoke at your graduation? I don’t — perhaps it’s just the failing memory of an aging baby boomer!

    Thanks for sharing your wonderful remarks.


    • My college graduation? The premier of Quebec, who spoke in French….
      But some of those new teachers will remember, “Oh yeah, that was the guy with laryngitis…”


  10. John-

    As a graduate from the University of Michigan who was sitting in the audience anticipating the future of where my teaching will take me… thank you. Your speech was inspiring in a media that is bringing teaching to the forefront. You are, by far, the greatest speaker the University of Michigan has had (and i’m quoting alumni here). I’m looking forward the the years of teaching ahead of me and thank you for visiting Ann Arbor last weekend.


  11. John, 

    Just read your commencement address and found it brimming with inspiration and refreshingly brief. Your laryngitis problem attached to a commencement address reminded me of Mario Cuomo’s opening remarks in filling a similar speaking role at the University of Massachusetts a while back. He said, “The commencement speaker is like the corpse at an Irish wake–everyone expects him to be there but no one expects him to say much.”

    You had much to say but said it without the padding too often surrounding such events. As always, good job!

    — Jim Trelease


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