I was in 8th grade and I was having a hard time fitting in. I sat at a table of three on the left side of the room in a make-shift classroom the school had put together in the library because of overcrowding. My teacher was an older woman in her 60s, she had short silver hair and glasses. Her name was Rita. She used to play classical music while we were working because she said that it helped with focus. She was more than just my math teacher. She cared, she told jokes, and she would always check in with each of us.
One day, Rita crouched down at my table and said, "You know, you are really gifted in Math."
I know the word gifted today is frowned upon, but for me those words really meant something. As I look back, I know that those words were the catalyst for me to work hard academically. I loved math, and Rita was the teacher that inspired me to stick with it.
I stayed in touch with Rita throughout high school and into college. We emailed each other, went out to dinner together to talk about my future, and we also talked about her career. I remember her talking to me about how teaching certification was changing and how much pressure they were putting on teachers to maintain their certification. At the time this seemed funny to me. I learned so much in her class, why was it that there was so much pressure on her to do better?
Rita passed away from cancer when I was a sophomore in college. I still have the book that she gave me on graduation and I keep a picture of her and I on my desk at work. When I think about who I want to be as an educator, I think about her. She taught me that it is not how much you know that matters, it is how much you care.
When I think about what it means to be a teacher, I wish I could focus on stories like Rita. A teacher who cares deeply about her students, takes the time to check in with them and support them, and challenges them to be the best they can be in the classroom. This is the essence of the teaching profession and something that we hold on to tightly.
We need to stop dehumanizing the teaching profession.
In my time in education I have watched as improvements have been made to the education system. Unfortunately, these improvements have not been framed well in the eyes of the public and it has created this animosity with education that is misguided. Being a teacher has become a battle to prove that you are working hard, to prove that you care deeply, and to fight against the constant ridicule that you are not doing enough.
In light of teacher appreciation week, here are my top three discussions on the teaching profession that I wish were framed differently:
1. Teachers did not invent high-stakes testing and they do not care more about the test than your kids.
There is immense pressure to prepare students for testing each spring and to prepare students for their next academic year. There are some perfectly valid reasons for testing. For starters, if you want to get better at supporting student growth you have to measure it.
The No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 attached high stakes testing to funding. This created fear in public education, not because people were not doing their jobs, but because education is already fighting for every dollar they have and this upped the ante. I can assure you that teachers are right there with parents in their frustrations over too much testing and not enough joy in learning. At that same time, what are they to do? I have never met a teacher that could sleep at night if they knew deep down that a test was coming and they had not fully prepared their students.
2. Teachers did not invent the Common Core and they did not change math.
The worst part of the Common Core hysteria is this ridiculous obsession with "new math." Math has not changed. Much like the medical profession has improved their understanding of nutrition, treatment of illness, and preventative care, the education profession has improved its understanding of the science of learning.
Research has shown that memorizing information actually only works with a handful of kids. Most kids need to know why and how things work, and need more time to work with visuals. If we want future generations to be successful in the workforce, they will need to be able to understand and interpret mathematics, not just memorize and report out information. And yes it's important, data science is one of the fastest growing fields in this country.
3. Teachers are very qualified and they are always working.
Teacher credentials have become harder to attain and harder to maintain. In Massachusetts, much like in other states, to obtain a teacher certification you have to have a minimum of a bachelor's degree, sit for an exam for licensure, and participate in hundreds of hours of observation and student teaching. It does not stop there. To maintain licensure, teachers have to take additional coursework to become versed in special education, in teaching English language learners, and additional courses in your content area. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy going to school and I enjoy learning. What I am trying to point out here is that the teaching profession requires that teachers become experts and there is a commitment to life-long learning in the profession that is non-negotiable.
Teaching is not a part-time job, and I have never known a teacher to truly take the summers off. Yes, there are two months in the summer and there are also school vacation weeks throughout the year. The teachers that I know and work alongside use this time to catch up on grading, prepare upcoming curriculum and units for their students, and take courses. During the school year, teachers are working into the evening every night and throughout their weekend doing the same. As parents around the world should now be aware, you cannot get all of your work done when you are supporting students throughout the day.
To end the war on teachers we have to stop letting politics dehumanize the teaching profession. Parents, we need you to recognize that teachers are on your side and they want your child to succeed. Remember the teacher that inspired you. Remember how much they cared. Instead of blaming a teacher, thank a teacher. As a leader in education, I have never forgotten what it's like to be in the classroom and neither should you.