Photo Credit: Washington Post/Getty Images
When you talk to anyone who has achieved some level of success in their career, they often credit having at least one amazing teacher in their life who really influenced them to dream big. (For me, it was Ms. Danowitz at Sheepshead Bay High School in Brooklyn, who was both my art teacher and my senior advisor.) And yet, despite the direct impact the Ms. Danowitzs of the world have on who we eventually become, teaching still isn't valued in our society the same way we value other professions such as medicine and science. Enter Dr. Jill Biden, who has been teaching for 32 years herself and who would like to change that.
"I really feel that the national conversation around teachers has to change because I think teachers are so dedicated," said Biden during a roundtable at the White House with four amazing teachers -- the finalists for National Teacher of the Year. (iVillage and only two other women's online sites were there!) "We're hearing more, I think, of the negative than the positive, and that's what I want to change. I want to celebrate who these men and women are because they are changing lives."
Alex Lopes, a pre-kindergarten special education teacher who is one of the national finalists and the the 2013 Florida Teacher of the Year, agreed. "We do see this discrepancy between the quality of the teachers that we do have, and the perception that society has," he added.
Battling The 'But They Get Summers Off and Leave at 3pm!' Thinking!
I remember tweeting a while back on the subject of teacher pay, and how I believed teachers should definitely be paid much more. The blowback from educated friends and colleagues was shocking. I kept hearing the 'They get the summers off!' refrain.
"I know how hard teachers work," said Dr. Biden, who teaches English full-time at a community college in northern Virginia and revealed she has a bag of research papers sitting in her White House office that still need to be graded. "It's not the summers off. I mean in the summers, you...are attending conferences, you are researching, I mean you are busy all the time...so I know how hard they work and that's why I want to start this celebrate teachers campaign."
Heidi Welch, a high school music teacher, National Teacher of the Year finalist, and 2013 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year, recalled how she was just in Disney World leading a school trip and how one of the parents said she had no idea how hard she worked. "I think that's one of the problems is that so many have no idea what goes into the daily life of an educator. They really just don't know, they make their assumptions, 'Oh, it's 7 to 3 and summers off'...We need more parents to see what the day to day is truly like."
Too Much Emphasis on Testing
Another finalist, Rhonda Holmes-Blankenship, a high school English teacher and 2013 Maryland Teacher of the Year, said there is too much an empahsis on standardized tests and grades. "There's this one part of American education that...the media chooses to focus its attention on and how we compare to other countries," she said. "But unlike many other countries, we educate everyone...We don't just test our best and brightest, we test all of our students."
The mom of two who has 18 years of teaching experience said our schools are "really just mirrors of our society." "The problems in our society are also in our schools, and I think that teachers are the soldiers. We are dealing with those societal problems one student at a time."
Helping Teachers Who are Struggling
While the four National Teacher of the Year finalists concede not every teacher is giving as much as they are, they say the best way to help a teacher who might be struggling in the classroom or who might not be going the extra mile for his or her students is through support, not criticism.
"We've got to make sure the first thing coming out of our mouth in education is (not) you did this wrong, you did this wrong, you did this wrong, because those good teachers sometimes feel like not coming back," said Jeffery Charbonneau, who is the new National Teacher of the Year. The chemistry, physics and engineering teacher and 2013 Washington Teacher of the Year added, "One of the best things we can do is recognize the successes in education, not to discount the challenges that we have because there are challenges. It's recognize the success first and then work on building and improving."
What a Teacher Can Do
What kind of a difference can a teacher make? Dr. Biden shared a story from her days teaching at-risk high school kids about 20 years ago. "I had one kid who had almost gotten to his limit of days when he could be absent. He would go out drinking at night," remembered Dr. Biden. "His mother would call me, like eight o'clock in the morning, 'You know Mrs. Biden, Kenny came in last night at two in the morning. I can't get him up.' I would say, 'You have to get him up," said Biden. (Kenny could get kicked out of school if he had another few absences.) "We were on the same team, there with the same goal of getting that student to graduation."
I bet Kenny would probably thank Dr. Biden for going that extra mile when he was in high school, just as I feel thankful Ms. Danowitz encouraged me to reach for the stars. Don't you have a teacher as well who inspired you or helped shape the woman or man you've become?
So, how about we all do a much better job thanking the teachers in our kids' lives, celebrating the work they do and keeping the conversation going about how we can elevate the profession of teaching, make the necessary improvements and help our teachers get better and stronger every day.
Maybe, just maybe, our teachers will one day be as highly regarded as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, an award-winning scientist or Beyonce.
I'm dreaming big, just like Ms. Danowitz encouraged me to do!