A Crisis Shines a Bright Light on What Is Truly Important: Teachers

  • Teachers & Tutors
Steve Wilkins, Head of School Blog

Aside from the science of controlling pandemic threats to humanity, one of the most important lessons from the past year is that schools and teachers are far, far more essential to our nation than we previously had ascribed.

"This is the value of the teacher, who looks at a face and says there's something behind that and I want to reach that person, I want to influence that person, I want to encourage that person, I want to enrich, I want to call out that person who is behind that face, behind that color, behind that language, behind that tradition, behind that culture. I believe you can do it. I know what was done for me."
—Maya Angelou

Unlike the nations whose children achieve the highest results on international tests of reading, math, and science, the United States has not placed teachers at the top of either the prestige nor salary categories. In a pre-pandemic Harris poll, only 60% of Americans placed teaching among the most prestigious jobs in our country. The highest salary ranking for teachers by category (those with master's degrees) was 71st on the list among compensation levels in America today.

A crisis shines a bright light on what is truly important. The primacy of the wellbeing of children, their happiness, optimism, and agency (feeling some control over their lives), rises to the top of the lessons learned in the past year. In fact, our society and its economic engine cannot function without a mechanism for taking care of the next generation.

Schools teach happiness. We are all better in social environments where we learn that joy comes from interaction with other human beings. Even for the introverts among us, we define ourselves in a social context. What we care about, how we structure our days, things that make us peaceful, friends that give us perspective, and finding fulfillment are all accomplished in a huddle of humans. Without each other, we have trouble finding who we are.

The novel coronavirus crisis has highlighted massive inequities in the distribution of wealth and access to healthcare in our society. It has also heightened our attention to the unequal opportunity for a high quality education in American society. One powerful response to these inequities is to attract talent to the teaching profession. Raise the esteem accorded to the teaching profession. Pay teachers at a rate that will encourage skilled and dedicated people to join the profession and remain committed to the art and science of teaching children.

The goal of education should be to place every child on an upward trending trajectory for academic and social-emotional skills development. Consistently studies reveal that the most important factor in student achievement is "what teachers know about and what teachers can do to promote student progress." A Rand study of student achievement states unequivocally that "Teachers matter more to student achievement than any other aspect of schooling."

Student wellbeing requires the commitment, skill, creativity, tenacity, and humanity of the teacher. This fact has been amplified during the pandemic. Children are happier, families are happier, life is more fulfilling, America functions better when skilled teachers are able to teach their students. The hindrances of the last twelve months have affirmed this point more than ever.

And then there are teachers who are trained to a higher level than typical teachers because of the particular requirements of their students. Carroll School teachers fall into this category. Prior to enrolling at Carroll these students had caring and intelligent teachers who failed, or mostly failed, to educate them because the teachers lacked the training to be able to help students with language-based learning difficulties acquire some of the essential skills of reading, math, writing, processing, organizing, attending, and showing their knowledge through traditional assessments. Aspiring teachers can learn these skills, and America's teacher preparation programs need to be more focused on skill development than on theory, similar to the focus of our medical and technical graduate programs. Young teachers need apprenticeships with highly skilled veteran teachers.

I close this diatribe with excerpts from a poem by Taylor Mali who tackles the absurd but widely-held belief in America that teaching is an easy profession for those who cannot do anything else.


He says the problem with teachers is
What’s a kid going to learn
from someone who decided his best option in life
was to become a teacher?
He reminds the other dinner guests that it’s true
what they say about teachers:
Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.
I decide to bite my tongue instead of his
and resist the temptation to remind the dinner guests
that it’s also true what they say about lawyers.
Because we’re eating, after all, and this is polite conversation.

I mean, you’re a teacher, Taylor.
Be honest. What do you make?

And I wish he hadn’t done that— asked me to be honest—
because, you see, I have this policy about honesty and a**-­‐kicking:
if you ask for it, then I have to let you have it.
You want to know what I make?
I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could.

You want to know what I make? I make kids wonder,
I make them question.
I make them criticize.
I make them apologize and mean it.
I make them write.
I make them read, read, read.
I make them show all their work in math
and hide it on their final drafts in English.

Here, let me break it down for you, so you know what I say is true:
Teachers make a g*dd*mn difference! Now what about you?

Mali. Taylor. “What Teachers Make.” What Learning Leaves. Newtown, CT: Hanover Press, 2002. Print. (ISBN: 1-­‐887012-­‐17-­‐6)

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