Honoring the World’s Teachers
On World Teachers’ Day, teachers discuss the joys and challenges of teaching
Every day, across the globe, millions of women and men—in a classroom or a tent or a learning center or under a tree—engage in one of the most timeless and powerful of human interactions—teaching a child or adolescent.
October 05, 2014 by Mary Burns, Education Development Center|
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“I’ve never regretted my decision to be a teacher. I haven’t gained much financially, but I am so rich in so many ways. I could never get this kind of meaning or feeling in any other profession. In teaching I have learned so much. I have grown so much as a person.” Dwight Logan, elementary school teacher (since 1989), Petit Martinique, Grenada
“I love teaching. I love the kids. I love when I’ve taught them something and I see them go on to excel. Now my students are doctors, sanitation inspectors, lawyers and I feel great.” Veronica Laweny, elementary school teacher (since 1978), Carriacou, Grenada
“I teach because I find young people fascinating. I learn as much from them as they learn from me.” Sara Bauman, middle school teacher (since 1976), Maryland, USA

Every day, across the globe, millions of women and men—in a classroom or a tent or a learning center or under a tree—engage in one of the most timeless and powerful of human interactions—teaching a child or adolescent.

Throughout the course of their professional lives, these teachers will do more than just instruct their students; they will serve as mentors, coaches, disciplinarians, social workers, counselors, confidantes, and many times, surrogate parents.

When that child grows up, he or she may recall that teacher with warmth or with disdain, or feelings in between. But apart from their parents, for many children, their teacher will be the most seminal adult influence in their life.

For teachers, too, though many of their students will blend together as composites over time, others will reside in the innermost circles of that teacher’s heart. As the quotes that begin this post make clear, there are few other relationships that are as powerful and transformative—for teachers and students alike.

Teaching is not an easy profession



L-R: Kadeem Compton, maths and physics teacher, Hillsborough Secondary School; Kerwin Noel, Harvey Vale Government School; Dwight Logan, elementary school teacher; and Veronica Laweny, Kingsbridge Government School, all of Carriacou and Petit Martinique, Grenada.

Everyone knows a teacher because most people have had one. And because of this, teaching is one of the most known, yet misunderstood, of professions. Everyone knows how to do your job better than you do.  In many places, views on teachers are almost Manichean—teachers are sanctified as self-sacrificing stewards of educational quality or vilified as the selfish architects of its demise.

Compared to other professions, teachers in many parts of the globe are paid less than similarly educated professionals. They are more vulnerable to physical and sexual violence, are often held in low regard, and are openly disparaged in national discourse on educational quality, government spending, economic competitiveness, and pension reform.

They receive less initial and ongoing preparation and training than those in other professions.  Except for a few places in the world (Mexico with its infamous teachers’ union; Finland, South Korea, and Singapore with policies that promote teacher voice and leadership), teachers have little power and limited voice in decisions that impact their professional performance and well-being.

Not surprisingly, many poor—and wealthy—countries face a severe shortage of young people choosing to teach, and in many places, schools lose 30-50% of their staff annually to retirement or attrition.

We need to focus on quality teaching every day, not just one day

World Teachers’ Day honors teachers across the globe. But if we really want to honor the work of the world’s teachers, and strengthen the education systems that need it most, we must move beyond the theater of a one-day annual event and engage the year-round commitment of making teaching an attractive profession and improving the well-being of our existing teaching force. That is the path to educational quality for students.

In October, 2013, I took a sabbatical from Education Development Center so I could work more with teachers—and have been doing for much of the past year in Ecuador, the United States, and presently in Panama.

Over the past few weeks, in anticipation of World Teachers’ Day, I’ve talked with teachers across the globe. This post reflects some of the key themes that have emerged from my time in schools and my informal and formal conversations with teachers in a number of countries.

Teachers bring high motivation to their jobs

Many professions are motivated by profit. Teaching is motivated by passion and altruism. In asking teachers what keeps them in teaching, the 200 responses or so I received (1) are remarkably uniform and can be distilled (verbatim) into the words of Fredelyn Eugenio, an elementary school teacher in Ilocos Norte, Philippines: “I love children…and I love helping them learn.”

As Gloria Uruguayi, a secondary school teacher in Cuenca, Ecuador told me, “Teaching is not a job; it is a vocation. You have to see it as a mission and focus on your student, not just as a mind, but as a complete human being—and you have to give all of yourself to your students.”

“The students motivate me,” says Anne Marie Carey, another secondary school teacher in County Meath, Ireland. “I really like young people—they lack the cynicism that prevents adults from taking chances. The ones who struggle really motivate me. Some kids need support from teachers that they don't get at home. I like to think that I offer those kids comfort, safety, empathy—that they know that someone respects them and likes them.”

For Kerwin Noel, an elementary school teacher in Carriacou, Grenada, “Students keep me in teaching. When I wake up and think of the kids, it motivates me. I want to go to school.” He laughs: “With students, there is never a dull moment.”

Teachers face enormous bureaucratic pressures

But how is this dedication rewarded? Because they often do their job under the worst of circumstances and with the least of rewards, teachers are then treated as a sub-class that has to be managed and organized by an increasingly metric-crazed bureaucracy. This is a source of endless frustration for teachers everywhere.

Teachers in many parts of the globe feel squeezed by increasing compliance and accountability pressures. As one U.S teacher in Massachusetts shared with me, “We have to do all this paperwork that is supposed to help the students, but in fact it is so time consuming that it takes us away from students.”

Anne Marie Carey echoes this: “My biggest challenge is having enough time to deal with (students’) issues. Our jobs here in Ireland now have a huge administrative role —paper work, policies, etc. Sometimes I feel it takes precedence over the ‘human-ness’ of being a teacher, of being in loco parentis.”

Teachers want to improve

Many believe that teachers don’t value learning, but the teachers I know and with whom I spoke all want quality professional development.  Like a majority of teachers across the globe, they either receive no professional development or participate in training that they consider unsuitable. 


Credit: Mae Lani Solino, Puguis Elementary School La Trinidad, Benguet, Philippines

For many of these teachers, the instruction they want centers on helping children with special needs (a big theme for teachers in Shillong, India and in Colombia) and technology—teachers like Mae Lani Solino, an elementary school teacher in La Trinidad, Philippines, who wants technology and wants to learn how to use it because she knows it can motivate students to learn.

I’ve witnessed, and been so impressed by, the desire to learn of so many teachers. In 2000, in response to the Marmara Sea earthquake, I provided instruction in technology integration for teachers in a newly rebuilt school in Degirmendere, Turkey. Every day for a week, beginning at 4:00 PM, after a full day of teaching, 30 teachers worked with me until midnight (at which point we all enjoyed an amazing meal which they had somehow found the time to prepare).

There is little respect for the wisdom of (years) of practice

Increasingly, schools are adapting to high teacher turnover and shortages by employing temporary young teachers to staff classrooms. This move to young, inexpensive and inexperienced teachers is often justified by claims that teachers plateau and decline in effectiveness after 5-7 years—an assertion more suited to Stephen Colbert’s notion of “truthiness” than to a serious research finding.  

Are we comparing teachers to baseball pitchers whose pitch velocity declines after the age of 30? Do we believe that our professional effectiveness atrophies after 5-7 years? Do we seriously believe that humans cease to learn and improve after a certain experience level? Don’t we want to encourage teaching as a career versus something you experiment with for a couple of years?

I have spent a good part of my adult professional life around teachers. I have spent the past year in classrooms. The very best teaching I have seen comes from veteran teachers—their virtuosity honed by the accumulated wisdom of many years of experience-- learning opportunities, deep knowledge of children, and reflection on those experiences.

“I’m still a teacher after 36 years,” Veronica Laweny of Grenada told me with pride. “I still love it after 36 years. I would do it for another 36 years!” (Yah man!)

As demand for teachers increases, teaching is increasingly seen as unattractive profession

Given the challenges teachers face, why would a young, educated high school or university graduate in Asia, Africa or Latin America choose teaching when there are so many other professions that offer better pay, greater prestige, more defined hours, and multiple avenues for advancement? How many people would sign on for Dwight Logan’s advertisement for teaching—“It’s a rewarding career, emotionally, but not financially. You struggle financially and your family struggles, too.”?

Get thee to a classroom

There are legitimate criticisms of many teachers and a lot of teaching. But much criticism is gratuitous, and it often comes from people who have never been teachers. Many of these critics don’t see this lack of first-hand knowledge as blindness but rather as a kind of “luminous halo” (2) that confers on them the exceptional enlightenment and omniscience about teachers and teaching that the rest of us lack.

So to these folks, I issue a simple challenge: Go teach in a government school—not just for a day —but for a week or a month.

Prepare lessons. Instruct 30, 50 or 100 children with 30, 50 or 100 learning styles. Try to make all of your students’ master quadratic equations, the subjunctive or consonant blends. Spend your evenings grading their work, giving feedback, and revising the next day’s lesson (I know—you’re only supposed to work six hours a day).

Teach middle school. Teach with an absence of technology or technology that doesn’t work. Teach with no books or materials to help you prepare or help children to learn. Balance conflicting edicts from national and regional education offices. Prepare kids for an exam that will determine their academic future and your job. Deal with principals who tell you to do one thing, but evaluate you on another.

If you are a female teacher in any number of areas of the globe, prepare for the real possibility that you will be sexually assaulted—by your (male) principal. You will surely be sexually harassed. If you are a female teacher in a place like Fatima Jinnah Teachers College in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, go to work every day knowing that there will probably be another bomb threat at your campus because for some men the fact that you are a woman who teaches young women is an affront…to God.

Teach kids who are hungry, who’ve been abused, who hate school and life, who don’t speak the language of instruction. If you get it, go to meaningless training sessions where someone talks at you for 6 hours, then blames you for not implementing what you’ve “learned.”

Try to teach the kid whom you’ve counseled and helped who suddenly one day throws you against a locker because God-only-knows what happened at his house last night, but he is angry and you are the only adult he can lash out at who will not physically hurt him. Deal with parents who insult you and threaten your job because you didn’t break the rules for their child.

Teach without a salary…or knowledge of when it will ever arrive, if indeed it does arrive. Oh, and even if you do get paid, you should plan on getting another job (or two) because you probably won’t be able to cover all your bills on your teacher’s salary.

If you survive your week, you will have burnished your bona fides to legitimately criticize teachers at will—or perhaps you will have developed some degree of empathy. And if you manage to thrive during this time, you may just find that you have come to know, in some small way, the magic and meaning of being a teacher.

--

To my teachers and to all the teachers all over the globe with whom I have taught and worked, thank you for all you have taught me.

Notes

  1. Thanks to Adriana Vilela and Diana Pernitt of the Organization of American States; Shylaja Reddy, RMSA-TCA, Shillong, India; Yvette Tan, EDC Philippines, for additional access to teachers; and to another great teacher—Barbara Parmenter—for her insights on this post.
  2. Blindness, José Saramago
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Comments

The thoughts so ably expressed here touch on aspects of teaching that we love to hear recognized. Bumping into ex students or seeing them on Facebook and having them tell us not just that they loved our class, but actually remembering us and telling us what they learned, gives a deep sense of satisfaction. It is wonderful to look back and say,"I made a positive difference in so many lives."

Hi Katrina, Thanks so much for reading and commenting. How wonderful to hear from students and be reminded about what they learned from and with you and the difference you made. That is a real gift. I really treasure the words of students who would come back to see me and thank me for pushing them or demanding more quality--even though at the time they hated me with a passion! :) Cheers, Mary

This article has brought out in a nut shell the factors which motivate to be a teacher and also the challenges that the teachers' across the globe are facing. I truly believe and acknowledge that an annual drama of having a one day event for teachers would not improve the condition of teachers or quality of teaching. It is time now that we sincerely think and act to bring in changes at the systemic level.

Shylaja, Thank you so much for reading and writing. Are there any examples from the India context that might help get at some of these systemic issues? Thanks for your help on this article and for being such a great colleague--I miss you and miss working with you--though I don't work as hard now that you are no longer in charge of me! ;-) Mary

Perhaps in thanking my teachers, I should hold the gratitude for my spelling teachers. My apologies to Diana Pernett and to Gloria Uyaguari for bungling their last names. Or maybe my Spanish teachers are to blame... :) In any case, mil disculpas and my apologies to both.

Mis más sinceras felicitaciones mi estimada Mary por tan interesante artículo. Usted es la VOZ de muchos maestros que no tienen voz. Además a través de su trabajo podemos tener una información veraz de lo que pasa en muchos lugares pobres del mundo. Sí, mi país es uno de ellos, pero la mayoría de problemas que enfrentamos los docentes, especialmente de las escuelas públicas son de carácter económico. No enfrentamos una violencia tan grande como la que existe en otros lugares, donde hay problemas políticos, económicos y sociales muy graves. Valoro mucho la oportunidad para expresar muchas opiniones de docentes comprometidos con la niñez y la juventud. Siga con esta digna labor de informar de una manera libre.

For non-Spanish speakers, quick translation of Gloria's message: My most sincere congratulations, my dear Mary, for such an interesting article. You are the VOICE of many teachers who have no voice. Through your work we can have a true picture of what happens in many poor parts of the world information. Yes, my country is one of these poor countries, but most problems facing teachers here, especially in public schools, are economic in nature. We don’t face the level of violence that exists in other places, where there are serious political, economic and social problems. I really appreciate the opportunity to express many of the opinions of teachers who are really dedicated to children and youth. Keep up this worthwhile work. Gloria (espanol): Mis disculpas por no haber respondido antes. Mis disculpas por haber machucado su apellido. Y de nuevo, muchísimas gracias por hablar conmigo para ayudarme con este blog. Usted es un maestro increíble. Sus estudiantes - y Ecuador - son muy afortunados de tener a alguien con tanta maestría y con tanto compromiso. Un saludo fuerte, Mary Gloria (English): My apologies for not having responded earlier. My apologies for mis-spelling your name. And again, thanks so much for talking with me for this blog. You are an amazing teacher. Your students--and Ecuador--are so lucky to have someone so skilled and dedicated.

I have been a teacher for almost five years teaching both Kids and Adults at language centres ,colleges and private universities and it is the most beautiful and emotionally satisfying period of my life.It is true that you could be even mocked at by your own young students who are just there to get their diplomas and degrees and it hurts when coupled with the financial struggles you had to go through at same time.Still I have made the best out of it and am grateful for those times I have spent with my students both for the good and bad times.I know I will get back to teaching at least on part time basis some day and I don't know when.Thanks for acknowledging the teachers and their efforts anyway.

Hi Dawit, Thanks so much for reading. Congratulations too on your fine work. can you share a bit about where and what you teach? Anything to add to what I wrote? What is important for people outside of teaching to understand about teaching? ( I would pose that question to everyone) Best regards, Mary

After reading I felt compelled to comment. I agree with one of the commentators that you are the voice of those who have no voice. whatever you wrote had been in my heart but I never had the courage to speak up. I did not know that many teachers in different parts of the world have been facing same challenges as teachers in my country face. You are also very much right that every other persona feels that it is his basic right to criticize teachers. Thank you very much for being on OUR SIDE.

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