“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.
- 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.
- Blindness, José Saramago