Column Title: ChalkTalk
By Dan Dougherty, Director of Communications for School District 51: Mesa County Valley Schools.
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With Thanksgiving in sight, I want to encourage the community to be thankful for the many great teachers and support staff members serving its children. When my extended family gathers around holidays, I’m always asked why America’s public schools can’t be like Finland or Singapore – the world’s top performing school systems. There are many reasons why we can’t be exactly like them, but there are also many things we can, and do, model after them. Having universally high, internationally benchmarked standards of learning come from these systems, for example. One key practice we need to improve on, however, is something only the community can do: hold educators in high esteem.
To be a 21st Century school district, we must return to having a high level of respect for teachers. In top performing schools the world over, teaching is considered a high-esteem profession. Teacher preparation programs at Universities have very high admission standards and attract the brightest students. Teacher pay is on par with other professionals like engineers, architects, and attorneys. The esteem, competitive pay, and tough entry standards result in a collective pool of top notch teachers. As professionals, they self-police their ranks to keep their quality high.
Recently, the American system of education has been so hyper-focused on accountability and testing that we’ve lost sight of the human condition at the heart of education: compassionate adults preparing children for adulthood. The focus has been on data: why our data doesn’t match or beat the data of other countries; whose fault it is; what magic bullet can fix it fastest. America has never been great on standardized assessments. The first international tests were done in 1964; we were 12 out of 12 – dead last. America had and still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world. We teach things more important than test scores – creativity, innovation, imagination, and how to think differently.
We used to be a society that respected and honored teachers and support staff for their noble endeavor. But, decades of harsh political winds have beaten back some of this respect. Since the 1950s, politicians have slammed public education, and most recently tried to lay the blame on teachers. Why? Bad news about public education creates the sense of crisis key to BOTH parties. A sense of crisis fuels liberal demands for more money AND conservative demands for more vouchers and other approaches. Legislators have also continuously encroached into the classroom, creating an overladen bureaucratic mess that they lay at the feet of educators.
Meanwhile - and like Finland and Singapore - American universities have increased the entry standards for their teacher preparatory programs. Many now require a full year of student teaching before licensure is possible. American universities still struggle to attract the brightest students, because they often choose higher paying career paths like computer science. In turn, this reduces the total pool of teachers and increases competition for those entering the field. Districts must now compete actively through compensation packages and community amenities to attract and retain great teachers. Each year, we lose great teachers and staff to higher paying districts, then have a hard time attracting new staff.
As we address the other issues, let’s return esteem to the profession. Teachers are self-motivated to help children learn, grow, and make positive decisions. They see fireworks in a student’s eyes when he or she really gets a new concept. They take children of all walks of life, with wide ranges of abilities, and help them navigate a dense forest of information and social scenarios so students can enjoy a happy and successful life. They ignite curiosity, open eyes, fuel confidence, protect innocence, create joy, feed intelligence, soften sadness, stimulate creativity, and celebrate successes. And, they do so bravely in the face of daunting challenges: hunger, drug and alcohol abuse, physical and emotional abuse, homelessness, illness, meanness, and mountains of regulations. It’s nothing short of miracle work.
These professionals earn our respect every day, and we encourage the community to join us in holding our teachers in high esteem. There are challenges in public education, but most are system issues, not teacher issues. Let’s strengthen our unity as teachers, parents, and community members to address the system issues together. And, while we’re working on the system-level issues, let’s be sure to continue to meet the needs of today’s students.
Education is a noble and challenging pursuit; please join us in giving thanks to teachers and support staff.