What if you were to close your eyes and picture the people–not family members–who helped make you a better person? How many of the men and women now visible in your mind’s eye were your teachers?
For me, three teachers changed my life; they improved my attitude, helped shape my worldview, and strengthened my sense of self-worth: My first grade teacher, Mrs. Peterson; my 12th grade English teacher, Mr. Sullivan; and my graduate school thesis advisor, David Cohen. There were others, of course, but those three are easy for me to picture.
This isn’t the first time I have asked people to do this. In a fun bit of reporting some years back, we asked some prominent Americans, including Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, Jesse Jackson, Phylicia Rashad, and Edward James Olmos, to tell us about the teachers who changed their lives for the better. To a person, each identified a woman or a man who refused to allow them to do substandard work, teachers who pushed, prodded, and cajoled them. That’s what most teachers do–when we give them the time, the tools, and the opportunities.
I am hoping to make this issue personal because all across America teachers, and public education more broadly, are under fierce attack. This is an unfortunate and disturbing continuation of a pattern that began years ago and accelerated during the four years that Betsy DeVos was U.S. Secretary of Education.
As a consequence, public education today is facing a looming teacher shortage, as more veterans (especially teachers of color) are leaving the field, and teacher education programs are struggling to keep their enrollment up.
I have been posting on this blog for well over a dozen years now, and to my great surprise one particular post from 2015 attracts about a dozen readers every single day, from all over the world. It’s this one, in which I ask whether teaching is a real profession or just a job? With the possible exception of my long exposé of Michelle Rhee’s deceptions, it is the most widely-read piece I’ve ever penned.
I’m betting many of the readers are teachers or would-be teachers. Naturally, I nurse the hope that the current U.S. Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, will read it, because I don’t think the Administration is aware of public education’s dire situation. These times call for aggressive (and progressive) action. Smaller classes, for openers.
Unfortunately, Dr. Cardona and the Biden Administration seem to be serving up more of the ‘same old, same old:’ More high stakes standardized bubble testing, more close scrutiny of classrooms, more highly-paid supervisors, and ever more crowded classrooms.
In a nutshell, we ought to be making it more difficult to BECOME a teacher but much easier to BE one. We ought to raise salaries AND standards. Communities ought to decide on outcomes–what we want our children (all of them) to be able to do. And then we have to learn to trust the men and women in our classrooms to do what’s necessary to achieve those outcomes. I wrote about this in some detail in “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.” If you are interested in learning more, it’s available from Amazon, although I’d prefer you get it from your local bookseller.
If you had teachers who made you a better, more complete person, shouldn’t you be acting to ensure that today’s children experience the same blessing?
2 thoughts on “Do Teachers Matter?”
David Cohen. . .a wonderful teacher who changed many lives and much scholarly thinking, not just for his students, but even for his readers.
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My career spanned nearly 5 decades, all of it in independent elementary schools, about half as the head of one school or another. At many a back-to-school night, I asked parents to literally close their eyes and recall their own elementary school years. I urged them to think of specific academic skills or topics learned in specific grades. Then I asked them to recall their teachers. Few could remember when they learned particular stuff (with the notable exception of long division). Virtually all remembered teachers by name and personality (for good and ill). The game is played on the field of human relationships. My teachers: Dr. Bill Carlisle (a male 4th grade teacher and a Ph.D, in 1956), Carmela Russo ( who taught me algebra in the 7th grade, firing chalk and erasers at those who were either inattentive or slow on the uptake), and Peter Brandon, an inspired and inspirational history teacher at St. Paul’s.
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