Rising Star

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In McAuliffe, the public found good cause to doubt the bleak reports about teachers.

In McAuliffe, though, teachers found a champion. During her months in the limelight, McAuliffe never missed a chance to talk up the profession. Teachers are smart people, she said over and over again; they work hard, and they care deeply about kids. That was a vital message, but the messenger carried the day. In McAuliffe, the public found good cause to doubt the bleak reports about teachers. Virtually overnight, she was hit by fame, stinging criticism, and the risk of riding a rocket to space, yet she handled it all with grace and style. Becoming a national icon would be a piece of cake for any teacher, she seemed to say. When asked if she was nervous appearing on the Tonight Show, McAuliffe laughed and said, "I've handled children in the classroom for 15 years; I can manage 15 minutes with Johnny Carson."

McAuliffe's impact can't be measured exactly, but it's certainly no coincidence that in the years following her time in the limelight, both policymakers and the public expressed more faith in the profession. The problems in the schools, people realized, were not all a manifestation of bad teachers; parents, administrators, and even students had to assume a share of the blame.

At the same time, teachers began to take more pride in their profession. A 1981 NEA survey of its members showed that 46 percent would become teachers again if given the choice. Five years later, a few months after McAuliffe's death, that figure nosed upward for the first time since 1966; by 1996, it reached 63 percent.

If nothing else, McAuliffe made teaching a more popular career choice. Each fall, UCLA researchers poll college freshmen nationwide about their plans for after graduation. Those surveys indicate that between the fall of 1984, a few months after the Teacher in Space program was launched, and the fall of 1987, roughly nine months after the Challenger explosion, the number of freshmen who planned to teach climbed by nearly 50 percent. The popularity of a career in the classroom has grown even more since; today, the UCLA survey reports that nearly one in 10 freshmen hopes to teach.

McAuliffe has a lot to do with those numbers, argues Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College, Columbia University. College students that Levine surveyed in 1993 pointed to the Challenger accident as a seminal event in their lives. Like John F. Kennedy, Levine argues, McAuliffe became larger in death than in life and inspired young people to choose careers where they could do good. "No other event shaped their lives more," he says. "There was nothing so powerful. Christa McAuliffe was real to these kids. They really thought she was going to come into their rooms and teach from space."

Can Morgan have a similar impact? It's clear she's going to try. "There were three goals of the Teacher in Space program," she says, "and the very first one was to raise the prestige of the teaching profession. This is a continuation of that."

In the interviews she's given since January, Morgan has never missed a chance to draw parallels between astronauts and teachers, to paint them both as explorers and leaders whose job it is to educate and inspire. And like McAuliffe did, she has stated emphatically that once her NASA stint is done, she will return to the classroom because there's nothing more exciting than teaching. "I am a teacher," she told a January gathering of reporters. "Those of us who love teaching, who stay with it, see it as a kind of calling. Being a teacher is in my heart."

A few NASA observers and newspaper columnists have already criticized her trip to space as a frivolous—and dangerous—exercise in PR. But Morgan rejects the notion that sending a teacher into space is "just" symbolism. "Get the 'just' out of there. It is symbolic. And that's probably the most important reason for doing it. That's how we teach. It's how we communicate. Math is a symbolic language; literature is symbolism."

For teachers, Morgan's journey may come at a crucial time. Certainly, teachers have more respect and power than they did in the mid-1980s; they regularly sit on the panels that write the hefty white papers assessing education's failures. Various surveys also suggest that teachers are more satisfied with their jobs than they were a decade ago. But the health of the profession is hardly robust. Teacher-bashing is still a favorite sport among legislators, and both policymakers and the public regard teachers with palpable condescension. And while interest in teaching as measured by the UCLA survey has grown, it is still less than half of what it was in the late 1960s when more than 20 percent of college freshmen aimed for a career in the classroom.

What teaching needs now is a hero as defined by today's media-obsessed culture: someone attractive and someone glib enough to banter with Katie Couric.

Indeed, the need for a powerful symbol, a teacher hero, may be greater now than it was in 1986. With enrollments booming and retirement looming for large numbers of educators, schools will have to hire some 2 million new teachers in the next decade. Yet many improvements in the teaching profession are taking place out of the public eye. Groups like the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards are raising the prestige and quality of teachers, but their work—grubby jargon-loaded stuff—doesn't grab headlines.

Education does not lack for heroes—plenty of the people working in the classrooms are models of courage, integrity, and I'm-going-to-beat-the-odds determination. But what teaching may need now is a hero as defined by today's media-obsessed culture: someone attractive, someone perceived as glamorous, and someone glib enough to banter with Katie Couric.

Mary Hatwood Futrell, for one, embraces the notion that the teacher in space has to be a media personality. Futrell is a Johnny-come-lately to the idea of putting a teacher in space. In 1984, she branded Reagan's program a "gimmick" intended to steal teachers' votes from the NEA-backed Walter Mondale. "Sending one teacher into outer space won't solve the problems of schools on Earth," she proclaimed then.

These days, Futrell sees things differently. "When I look over the past decade, we've come a long way," she says. "But we're not there yet. Barbara's coming along at a pivotal point. She is going to become a beacon of light and hope for teachers and the profession."

Whereas Futrell once blasted the Teacher in Space program's gimmickry, she now embraces it. To be a beacon of light and hope in the modern age, she argues, you've got to play the media game and do the talk shows and the interviews. "Why not? If this is an opportunity to enhance the profession, why not? We need 2 million new teachers in the next decade. What better way to highlight the profession and attract good people.

"And even if all the interviews she does change the life of only a single child and make that child stay in school and study harder and work more on his math and science, then her mission will be a success."

Late this summer, Barbara Morgan and her husband will pack up their boys and their belongings and move to Houston. Training for the Challenger flight lasted only a few months—the teacher in space needed only to know what buttons not to push, Morgan jokes. This time around, she will spend two years training to become what NASA calls an "educator mission specialist." At the end of the training, NASA promises, Morgan will be a full-fledged astronaut.

Long before then, however, the media will have anointed Morgan a hero. In mid-May, she's scheduled for another cattle-call session with reporters out West. NASA officials say they will limit her interviews so as not to interfere with her training, but undoubtedly, by the time she goes into space, there won't be many people in America who don't know that Barbara Morgan has the right stuff.

Several months before the Challenger launch, CNN named Christa McAuliffe one of its three heroes of 1985. McAuliffe was puzzled by her selection. "A hero?" she said. "A hero is someone who has defied the odds by breaking a stereotype and endured the challenge of being first at something.... My gosh, I haven't done anything. Ask me after I've flown."

Now, we'll have to ask Barbara Morgan.

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