It is National Teachers Day, a day of recognition for one of the most challenging and under appreciated professions. It is a day to stop for a moment the rush of our daily routines and recognize the degree to which good teaching builds a healthy, vibrant future for our families, our communities, and our democracy.
There is a culture war taking place in the policy arena surrounding our education system: mayors and governors are demanding regimens of high-stakes testing, in hopes of revealing the quality of education available, along with reasonable means of improving that quality. Teachers are often seen as obstacles to reform, though they may be the most impassioned advocates for reform, and the minds best positioned to see what is needed.
To achieve meaningful reform that advantages students and builds a more intelligent, collaborative, democratic and equitable future, we need to be honest about what we, as a society, are asking teachers to do on our behalf. We are asking them for nothing less than a 100% perfect performance in building all possible necessary skills and knowledge into our children’s intellect, preparing them for a global century.
We are not providing them with the moral or material support to match that demand. We are not. Excuses are made, teachers are denigrated, and politicians seek to lay blame at the feet of the people who sacrifice the most, by far, to achieve that collective performance demand.
Management and labor struggle to agree on who is worth more, but the decline in student performance has paralleled the steady rise in administrative costs and the decline in percentage of funding dedicated to teachers’ salaries and educational materials. If we want investment in our future to happen, we have to put up the funds for that investment.
To teach is to present ideas, information, skills and understanding, to an audience not necessarily pre-equipped to internalize, manage or apply it. It is a complex task that some variants of cognitive science suggest is technically impossible: to deliberately and effectively transfer knowledge and understanding, without distortion, from one mind to another.
Every student learns differently, because every mind seeks and acquires information differently, and the integration or deployment of that information tends to happen according to character more than to setting. Some students exhibit firm resistance to certain ideas or even whole skill sets, while others seek and assimilate with unbounded curiosity.
Any good teacher has to be able to meet the needs of all students, without slowing the progress or dampening the intellectual acuity of any. This intuitive balancing act is just one of the complex applications of higher interpersonal reasoning that can never be switched off during day of teaching. Another is the need to be “on”, accessing information at will, synthesizing and expressing ideas without fear of the complexity of the task.
Teachers “perform” in an intimate theatre of high-stakes public speaking, where the quality of their performance may well influence the future life potential of every audience member. Meeting that challenge, for six hours a day, often without interruption, every day of the week, is an epic undertaking, far outside the comfort zone of most people.
There constantly arise issues of discipline, the uncomfortable crises rooted in problematic relations or habits in the home, the sometimes corrosive inter-influence among students not yet able to understand the real consequence of their actions or attitudes, and any number of other distractions from the complex task of teaching actual information. The willingness and interest-level of just one student can become an impediment to the entire process of teaching and learning.
Teachers often have to work long hours outside the allotted work day, and it is common to take significant emotional baggage home over nights and weekends. The stresses can rival those to which surgeons and lawyers are subject, but neither the complexity nor the stresses involved commonly involved in the profession have led to the level of prestige or remuneration associated with those professions.
Too many of us have met teachers and think we understand the scope of their preparation and the significance of the work they do. It may very well be that it is our general tendency to undervalue ourselves and our own experience that leads to so many people failing to recognize the vital, indispensable and heroic career of service that is teaching.
Teaching is service. Most teachers are civil servants being paid a steady salary, but according to the politics governing civil service pay. The significance of their work is not I what they earn, but in the product of their work: the opportunity for students to advance through adolescence and into adulthood, equipped with agile and informed minds and ready to be full citizens of a vibrant 21st century democracy.
The fabric of our society is inextricably linked to the work of our teachers, in relation to the development of our children and fellow citizens at all ages. We will be freer and more secure in our freedoms when all students can expect to be given the opportunity to cultivate their most complete, best prepared, most genuinely talented self.
It is education that makes such a future possible, and it is our commitment to cultivating the most committed, most respected educators that allows us to bring at future from the realm of possibility into the realm of lived experience. In other words, we need good teachers if we want to cure our society of all its ills and secure the future of our democracy.
We will not get that quality of teacher if we treat the profession as if robots were better candidates for the job. We will not get that quality of teacher if we treat educators as suspect or as a drain on public coffers. We will not succeed in putting our children first if we do not recognize the ways in which teachers and students are the two most direct beneficiaries (or victims) of the same policy choices.
We need to recognize today that being an educator is a vocational choice, that it involves a level of difficulty most people would not dream of committing to on a day to day basis, that it is an undervalued but essential contribution to the health and wellbeing of our society, and that we owe it to our children to elevate those who commit to teaching them.
We need to take seriously the fact that rhetoric does not replace action in support of better education. If we value the vision of a quality education for our children, and a society in which all citizens have had the benefit of the most advanced education on Earth, then we have to commit the resources necessary to support, provide for, protect and elevate those who are willing to do the heavy lifting.