I’ll be at the World Teachers’ Day event at UNESCO in Paris this Friday, October 5. I don’t have speaking slot at the event, but I’ve been thinking about what I would say if I did. Here’s my best attempt to get my thoughts on “paper.”
Everyone has heard the phrase it takes a village to raise a child; it takes a village to raise a teacher too. I learned this firsthand—strong teachers are built, not born—in my journey from being a clueless rookie to an accomplished veteran.
I became a teacher in 2003 because I wanted to work with young people. Research by the National Education Association in America has shown that this is the dominant reason that people enter teaching—the opportunity to work daily with students. There really is nothing like it.
Unfortunately, after a first year on the job teaching nine-year-olds in the Bronx, with hostile administrators and little training, I felt that although I meant well, I might have been doing more harm than good. The job also took a toll on me; at 23, my hair had started to fall out, my relationship with a girlfriend disintegrated, and I felt stressed all the time. I decided not to return for a second year and became part of an ugly statistic: In America, approximately half of all teachers last five or fewer years on the job.
After a year away from students, I felt a magnetic pull to return. The teaching life is an exciting and rewarding one, even if it is often difficult, at times exceptionally so. Students’ faces become lodged in your thoughts around the clock.
After my return to the classroom, I earned a graduate degree at Teachers College, Columbia University, that included two semesters of student-teaching during which I was paired with supportive mentor teachers. That opportunity to learn the craft alongside experts before carrying responsibility for a full teaching load made all the difference.
Since then I have taught literature and composition to college-bound teenagers in Washington, D.C. at the SEED Public Charter School, where the school leaders are highly supportive of developing their teachers. In that environment, I have blossomed as a practitioner and my students have benefited. In 2011, I earned National Board certification, a recognition of accomplished teaching practices from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
It’s an honor to be recognized with the title of National Board-certified teacher, one held by fewer than 3 percent of the more than 3 million working American teachers. But it would be folly to think that I am in any way different in my capacity than the other millions of teachers in America and across the world. I know exactly what it’s like to be an overwhelmed, overworked, overstressed early-career teacher—that was me back in the Bronx.
There’s no magic that accounts for my transformation; it has everything to do with the supportive professional village that raised me up. Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education for the United States, says that education is an investment, not an expense, and he is absolutely right. To me, this means building the village for teachers and students to thrive. We can’t succeed in isolation; accomplished teachers stand on the shoulders of all who helped them at every turn on their journeys.
My year of student-teaching and my graduate school professors and colleagues provided a safe environment in which to learn, to experiment, and to grow. The administrators at SEED ensured that I was accountable for student achievement but that I had a manageable workload with small classes and great flexibility with curriculum.
My relationships with teacher-leadership organizations and networks like the Center for Teaching Quality and The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards connected me with expert teachers and rich professional development. Membership to the National Council of Teachers of English, a professional organization, exposed me to a wealth of indispensable learning opportunities and successful pedagogical practices. These groups raise the bar for teachers, connecting us to one another and to critical resources. Technology now allows us to learn from and collaborate with others around the globe; teacher organizations play a critical role in helping us to harness this technology to be 21st century “connected educators.”
Teachers come to the profession wanting to work with students and make a difference, but they can’t be successful without a village to nurture their development. We know how to coach teachers to excellence; we have a recipe that works. With accountability, reflection, passion for the work, solid networks, high-quality clinical preparation programs, a school culture that views teachers as leaders, and a system that invests in educators, we can build a worldwide force of expert teachers. Great teachers are built, not born.
We must put all the resources we can into investing in the village—for teachers and for students. This means working to elevate the status of the teaching profession in society, to emphasize and support teacher quality and improvement throughout the professional continuum, and to commit to funding advanced research on the teaching profession.
Thank you for listening, and I look forward to learning as much as I can from you today.
The opinions expressed in Global Studies: Live From Paris on World Teachers’ Day are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.