Want Better Schools? Exalt Great Teachers

When we demean teaching, we perpetuate mediocrity; when we exalt teaching, we bring about great education

I recently gave a talk to students in a Peace Studies course at the University of Maine. My book, Most Good, Least Harm, had been required reading, and they had also watched my TEDx talk, The World Becomes What You Teach. They were a great audience with wonderful insights, excellent critical thinking skills, and very interesting questions. My talk was based on my book and not on the field of education, but when I was discussing the need for each of us to work for changes in systems in order to create a better world, I mentioned my own personal work for change, which is to help bring comprehensive humane education into all schools and graduate a generation of solutionaries, and this seemed to strike a chord. When I opened for questions, all of them revolved around teaching. The first was whether I thought that teachers were paid enough. Since I'd recently written about this, I enthusiastically responded that I thought that master teachers ought to be earning six figure salaries (while bad teachers are fired). There was a question about private school versus public school salaries and another about tenure. Then one student described an incompetent teacher she had whom she felt was grossly overpaid, and given her description I had to agree.

We were running out of time, but I wanted to ask them a question of my own - one I ask people frequently: How many of your teachers in elementary and high school were great? Awful? Mediocre? More often than not people respond that only 10% of their teachers were great. This is usually the same percentage that they classify as awful, and the rest fall into the middle. One person in this audience, however, felt that 40% of his teachers had fallen into the awful category.

This is always a distressing evaluation, and given the consistency of responses I've received, it's no wonder teachers are excoriated. We all have our stories of bad teachers. Most of us have memories of being bored, frustrated, anxious, and often miserable at school. We love our great teachers, and we remember them fondly and with gratitude, but for too many of us, they are too few in number to offset the bad and mediocre ones. Thus, teachers as a whole are commonly vilified, and the field of teaching is often perceived as a "semi-profession." The incompetent teachers really do have seemingly cushy jobs where they work little and get paid far more than they're worth. And the great ones are often perceived as heroes and saints, but not as the standard toward which we should aim, nor as professionals worthy of six figure salaries. And thus we perpetuate the cycle of mediocrity.

It is obvious that we cannot have great schools without great teachers, but what is less obvious is that we will be hard-pressed to build a preponderance of great teachers while we are demeaning the profession in the public sphere; diminishing the status of teachers, and paying them salaries that are not competitive with those of other professionals. This is why I believe that we must transform our discourse on teaching. We should exalt the profession.

As we transform people's perception of the profession of teaching, and as we reward great teachers with status and better salaries, we will inevitably attract more capable and inspired teachers. But this will not happen unless we simultaneously commit to ensuring the removal of incompetent teachers. It is up to each of us to participate in this two-fold process whether we are educators ourselves, or parents, or simply citizens. We all have a stake in education. To accomplish this challenging task, we need to help people distinguish between the profession of teaching, its nobility and importance, and the bad apples who give it a bad name. Having zero tolerance for incompetence allows us to have infectious enthusiasm for the field itself. This won't be easy given the reality of less than stellar (and sometimes atrocious) teaching in too many of our classrooms, but I can think of no other way to break the cycle of mediocrity that pervades our schools and build a vision of schooling to which the brightest and best will flock to serve.

After my talk was over, I was thrilled to meet Chris, a senior studying to be a teacher. He gave me hope. He was a thoughtful, engaged participant during the talk, and so eager and enthusiastic about the field he was preparing to enter. It is the Chris' in the world that we all need to work for. They hold the future in their classrooms.

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