Say Thank You to a Teacher for Me Today, Please

One of my best friends is a teacher. Let’s call her Lynn. She’s easily the toughest, smartest, most determined person I know. Every day I strive to be a little bit more like her, knowing that I’ll never succeed.

When Lynn was in high school, she told her guidance counselor that she planned to be a teacher. The guidance counselor responded, “Why would you want to waste your time like that?” Lynn took the comment to heart and enrolled in a molecular genetics program at one of the top universities in the country.

She was bored. She had an itch, a feeling that she was doing the wrong thing. She transferred to a different university and enrolled in an elementary education program. She graduated with near-perfect grades. Her university’s student teaching program was absurdly short. (Think about it, would we let doctors work on their own after 140 hours of supervised work with patients? That’s less than four weeks! Some schools today have student teaching programs that require up to 900 hours of work with kids, but others don’t require any student teaching at all.) She was woefully under-prepared. But she took her brains and her determination to a job at an inner-city public school.

Her first year was miserable, of course. Nobody gets good at any job with 140 hours of practice, let alone one as difficult as teaching. It takes something on the order of ten thousand hours, or five years of full-time effort to achieve true expertise in anything that requires significant cognitive effort. If we were serious about education, we’d require all teachers to complete a master’s degree plus a two-year residency. That wouldn’t deter people like Lynn, and if it did deter others, so much the better. We hire fewer than 100,000 recent graduates as teachers each year in the U.S., yet we award roughly 280,000 teaching degrees each year (bachelor’s, master’s). To look at the data another way, at least 7.7 million Americans have earned teaching degrees, yet we employ only 3.7 million teachers.

Lynn was moved from sixth grade to first mid-year, given virtually no support, and regularly thought about quitting. In fact, 46% of new teachers do quit within the first five years. But like I wrote, Lynn is the toughest person I’ve ever met–she stuck it out.

A few years later, she went back to school for a master’s degree, working on it at night and on weekends, investing tens of thousands of dollars of her own money in improving her teaching skill. When she finished, her school district gave her a $300 per year raise. She’ll complete her PhD this year. But her school district won’t give her a raise for that, because the Indiana General Assembly recently outlawed raises for additional education degrees. (Only content-area degrees may be considered, and then only as 33% of an evaluation.) Lynn doesn’t care–she was doing it to learn to be an even better teacher, not because it would be financially remunerative.

Lynn now has more than a quarter-century of teaching experience. She’s taught children in poverty for all but two of those years. She’s turned down opportunities to teach in suburban schools, private schools, and charter schools because she believes she can make the biggest difference working with children who live in poverty. At her current school more than 90% of the students qualify for a free lunch.

She has parents who work two or three jobs and are still in poverty. Others that don’t speak English. She’s had to deal with parents who stole their kid’s ADHD medicine to sell on the black market. And deal with their kids. One memorable episode involved an off-his-meds upper elementary student crawling uncontrollably around the classroom barking like a dog. She’s seen five-year-olds arrive at school with pot in their backpacks, because that’s where their parents decided to stash it. Some of her parents are wonderfully supportive. Some are barely present in their children’s lives. A few send their kids to school broken and battered. Lynn knows her way around the Child Protective Services referral process.

Public schools in the United States are the best in the world. Yes, you read that right. I’ll repeat: we have the best public education system in the world. The “school failure” narrative you hear from politicians and the media is categorically false. The best test for cross-country comparisons is known as PISA, which is administered every three years. The 2012 data won’t be released until December, so this discussion relates to the 2009 test.

U.S. schools that had a poverty rate of 10% or less beat every country in the world on the PISA test. They even beat Finland’s schools, that have a poverty rate of just 3%. (Shanghai edged out the U.S. low-poverty schools, but Shanghai isn’t even a country anyway, and only the top 35% of their students attend high school. And even so, they only beat U.S. students by 5 points out of more than 500.)

In fact, if you compare any particular bracket of poverty, U.S. public schools perform as well as or better than comparable-poverty overseas schools. Schools like Lynn’s, with more than 75% poverty, are best compared to Mexican schools (the only country that administers the PISA test and has a poverty rate that astronomical). And high-poverty U.S. schools trounce their Mexican counterparts, 446 to 425.

Poverty is like a playing field on which schools compete. If you organized a football game between the Denver Broncos and the Jacksonville Jaguars (arguably the best and worst teams in American football at the moment), but inflicted a 19 yard penalty on the Broncos at the start of every drive, the Jaguars would dominate. The difference between child poverty rates in the U.S. (22%) and Finland (3%) is 19 points. Given an equal playing field, U.S. teachers and U.S. public schools are the best in the world.

The advocates of the school-privatization movement cry foul at numbers like these. They’ll give example after example of teachers or schools that made an incredible difference to kids in poverty. They’ll say that since some schools and some teachers are able to achieve results with kids in poverty similar to those wealthy kids achieve, that proves all schools and all teachers can do it.

I call bullshit. Not because they’re wrong–they’re absolutely right. Some teachers can get amazing results. Let me tell you about one–she’s one of my very best friends in the world. Let’s call her Lynn. She asks for the tough kids, the English as a New Language (ENL) students, and lets the “high ability” kids go to another classroom. Yet her students routinely score at or near the top of all students in her school on their state achievement test. In two of the last three years her classroom has been the top scoring room in the entire school on either math or reading. And this is not a small school–it’s nearly twice the optimum size for an elementary school. (We want research-based education–except when it requires building new schools.)

How does Lynn get these results? She’s continued to educate herself. She owns and has read more than 660 books about teaching. She subscribes to and reads a half-dozen scholarly journals. In her 25-year career, she’s spent in excess of $110,000 of her own money on teaching materials and school supplies. She has amassed a classroom library that fills 66 copy-paper boxes. (I know, because somehow I let myself get wrangled into helping last time the administration bounced her to a new room. Which is another interesting point–would a doctor or lawyer be forced to move his own office?) What’s the reward she gets for amassing this huge and interesting classroom library? When the school district found some money to purchase a few books for the other, largely bookless, classrooms in her building, she was left out, because she, “already had enough books.”

Lynn works 70-hour weeks during the school year. During the week, she sleeps about five hours a night and catches up on her sleep on the weekend. She often beats the custodians into the building, and routinely waves goodbye to her administration at four-thirty and settles in for another two hours of work. She used to attend three or four education conferences a year–which she paid for herself–but her administration no longer supports the out-of-school time, so now she only attends conferences in the summer.

Lynn has no children, instead, she pours her love, passion, and dedication into “her kids” at school. She’s a demanding teacher. She teaches difficult material and insists that every child will master it. High expectations create stress, and some of her students have never experienced academic rigor. Some students enter her room barely able to read first-grade material, unable to do one-digit addition. Education is not important to many of her students. Their parents rarely hold high school diplomas, let alone any college degrees. Like many of us, her students would often rather be watching a movie or playing football than struggling to master difficult new math concepts. And when they melt down, as a few inevitably do, she gets little support. Instead, the administration exhorts her to be less demanding and create an “easier” classroom environment.

Many parents are supportive. Some are unreachable. A few have called to curse her out in the crudest terms imaginable–they blame her when their child gets a poor behavior report, or they don’t like seeing their child struggle with difficult material. When parents harass her–or even threaten her–the school’s administrators do little if anything.

Interestingly, Lynn gets her results without assigning much homework. Every child is expected to read on his/her own or with a parent for half an hour every night, and sometimes they have one page of math practice to do as well.

The kinds of phenomenal results Lynn gets are not replicable broadly. They’re not even replicable in her own building–her administration seems to be actively discouraging her. The other 3.7 million American teachers do not, and should not, all see teaching the same way Lynn does, as a life-consuming mission. If it were possible to overcome poverty solely through eduction, one of the dozens of new programs we’ve tried during my lifetime would have worked. Education is not a silver bullet for eliminating poverty–it’s just one part of the answer. And despite the platitudes of politicians and media figures, we have no national stomach for tackling the problem of childhood poverty in this country.

We do a terrible job as a society supporting our teachers. The deluge of criticism is nonstop, much of it generated by people who have a financial interest–directly or indirectly–in the school privatization movement. Politicians work to undermine teachers’ unions, which makes sense only from a fiscal standpoint. If quality of education were politicians’ primary concern, they would work to strengthen teachers’ unions, perhaps using Finland’s 100% unionized teaching force as an example. Without unions, salaries would go down, just as they have in every other sector that’s gone from unionized to non-unionized. And if salaries go down, the quality of people willing to teach will go down as well.

Unfortunately, even some school administrators have bought into the false “school failure” narrative. The administrators at Lynn’s school are constantly throwing up new roadblocks and headaches. Teachers are asked to do menial tasks, like inventorying textbooks, that any secretary could do. Their prep times are routinely consumed with useless and often demoralizing meetings. When they ask for help with unruly kids, they’re called on the carpet instead of given support. Even more unfortunately, Lynn’s school is not unique. Teacher morale is at its lowest point in 25 years. Only 39% of teachers are satisfied, and more than half experience “great stress” several days per week.

Lynn will be okay. Maybe I wrote it before, but she’s the most determined person I’ve ever met. However, millions of great teachers are thinking about leaving the profession. Lynn’s family has been urging her to quit for years. Luckily for her students, she has no intention of quitting.

What can we do? I’ll ask only one, easy thing of you. Do it right now, please. Contact a teacher you respect–via phone, social media, or face to face–and say thank you. Lynn and I appreciate it.

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