Last Friday night, millions of Americans who support our public schools were attending high school football games. They were the parents of the players or the band members. They were selling refreshments to raise funds for the booster clubs. They were the teachers and staff of the school extending a long day to show support for their students. They were fellow students in the stands demonstrating their school spirit through the cheers and applause for the success of players and the pride in their schools. Bringing the community together is a function of the public schools, and Friday night football certainly does that.
While the Friday night high school rituals were being observed, CBS Television Network was premiering a new two-hour documentary about the life of four teachers going through their daily routines to educate all children who had been assigned to them. The documentary is simply called “Teach” with a tagline of “It’s Not a Job. It’s a Mission.” CBS gave this documentary two hours of prime television time. Advertisers saw the show as appealing enough to pay the bill, and, as a result, CBS gave America a gift.
This documentary may have been even more important in bringing the community together as that Friday night football game, and it had a larger audience, an audience not only of public school supporters but also possibly of detractors who may have been touched by the evidence of the value of America’s teachers. Viewers got a real world view of the demands, joys, and plain hard work of teaching America’s children. Teachers got a pretty accurate reflection of what they do on a daily basis by four rank-and-file teachers who appeared ordinary, but who, like most teachers, had extraordinary impact on students.
Matt Johnson is the youngest teacher of the group. He has excellent academic preparation in math, and his students excel in that subject. His preparation for teaching reading was thinner, and he struggled, but he had a supportive principal who coached and mentored him. He genuinely loves his students, relates to them from his own personal experiences, and sees teaching as a career; therefore, he has made the commitment to improve and grow. Teaching must not be a drive-by experience or a revolving door. Every year, the teacher must get better or leave the profession.
Shelby Harris is a teacher from rural Idaho, and, I thought, more traditional. Her story is so typical of what many teachers today experience. Everyone is looking for the silver bullet. In Shelby’s case, she was required to integrate the Khan Academy tutorial lessons into her teaching. As a professional, she made the change from “sage on a stage” to facilitator of learning. She refuses to give up on any child. She genuinely loves her students, relates to them from her own personal experiences, and sees teaching as a career so she made the commitment to improve and grow. Teaching in the 21st Century requires flexibility and willingness to embrace new technology tools and the “personalization” of instruction for every student.
A teacher at an early college school in Denver, Lindsay Chinn teaches algebra, the gateway course to college. Lindsay was chosen to “operationalize” the vision of her school administrator. The administrator did not abandon her like so many others have. Together, they initiated a 360 degree classroom to support each individual student learning algebraic concepts and problems. Like all good teachers, she zeroed in on students who struggled and refused to let them fail. She genuinely loves her students, relates to them from her own personal experiences, and sees teaching as a career so she made the commitment to improve and grow. Teaching is a collaborative process with colleagues, not a competitive one.
Joel Laguna is an AP World History teacher in a high-poverty high school. He teaches and attends UCLA to earn a master’s degree. The documentary of Joel captured the power of reflection in teaching. It is so easy to make a classroom teacher-centered. Joel learned that classrooms must be student-centered, and when he changed, the learning of students increased substantially. Joel genuinely loves his students, relates to them from his personal experiences, and sees teaching as a career so he made the commitment to improve and grow. Teaching is giving students the gift of life-long learning and showing them the power of education.
As you can tell, these four teachers embraced the soul of teaching: authentic and genuine love of your students, lifelong learning, a commitment to a career, empathy for the life experiences of every student, and the skills to transmit knowledge. While this documentary accurately reflected the takeover of testing as the ultimate goal in today’s classrooms, viewers had to surmise that more testing, more misuse of testing, and more high-stakes testing will not improve learning. Teaching is a process. Improve the process, and you will improve the results. Supporting our teachers with respect, economic security, and great teaching and learning conditions should be the highest priorities for school reform.
Not as significant as the story of these wonderful teachers, but important for my readers is the fact that this documentary was produced by Davis Guggenheim with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I like to think that this is penitence for the “Waiting for Superman” documentary that was an inaccurate portrayal of teachers and their unions. I hope that all those who promoted that documentary will promote this one just as much. Their actions will be telling.
The opinions expressed in John Wilson Unleashed 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.