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Teachers Built “It”

September 4, 2012 — Leave a comment

The claim “I built it” is being tossed around this political season.  I am not a fan of the unspecific pronoun “it”, but as “it” in this context stands for any one of a number of diverse businesses that power our nation’s economy, the inclusive, ubiquitous pronoun will have to serve.

While I agree that the success of our nation is due in large part to those who “built it [businesses]” in the past and to those individuals who will “build it [businesses]” in the future, I feel the need to point out that there is one profession that has more claim to this catch phrase then others. If America is a world power today because of those who “built it,” the individuals who “built it” are teachers. For example:

  • Teachers have “built it” by  teaching the reading and comprehension of texts in differing levels of complexity;
  • Teachers have “built it” by teaching formal and informal writing to communicate;
  • Teachers have “built it” by explaining the essentials of numeracy;
  • Teachers have “built it” by presenting the basic  laws of motion, gravity, and energy;
  • Teachers have “built it” by clarifying the organization of elements which compose the organic and inorganic on the planet;
  • Teachers have “built it” by explaining  science of colors and techniques of expression or the science of sound and musical techniques of expression or the science of drama and the techniques of performance;
  • Teachers have “built it” by presenting instruction in other languages to promote global understanding;
  • Teachers have literally  “built it” with hands-on lessons in engineering and industrials arts.
  • Teachers have “built it” by presenting lessons of history; the lessons of economic principles to budding businessmen, strategic principles to future military leaders, and political science to future politicians;
  • Teachers have “built it” by instilling an appreciation for civics and law to our nations’ citizens and to those who directly interpret and defend our Constitution.

Teachers at every grade level, teaching youngsters in kindergarten to teaching adults in graduate school, have had a hand in building our nation’s skills and developing our national brain trust. Teachers in all schools, public and private, have dedicated time and energy in the passing of information from one generation to the next. Teachers of all disciplines have shared their expertise in the hopes of building a better society.

Granted, not all teaching has been successful. There have been teachers that have missed steps in the building of knowledge; students may not have gained information that would have been beneficial. Some lessons have ended in failure, and despite best efforts, statistics on literacy for American adults vary over 80%. There is more that can be done to improve education, and so there are teachers working to “build” a better education system for all citizens.

Teachers are “building it” using the Bloom’s taxonomy of knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Teachers are “building it” with an appreciation for the different learning styles of students from the verbal-linguistic to the  logical-mathematical; from the visual-spatial to the bodily-kinesthetic; from the interpersonal to the intrapersonal, and from the musical to the naturalistic.

In classrooms everywhere, whether a student is seated in an august university or in a home school kitchen, there are teachers who are at this very moment teaching students how to “build it”, whatever “it” might be. In each of these classrooms, the “building on” knowledge and understanding is critical to the success of what will be “built” in the future.

The phrase, “I built it” might even have its origins in the classroom. How often has teacher affirmed a student’s success with “You did it!” or “Look what you did!” rather than self-serving “Look what you just learned because a teacher taught you.”

Yes, our nation has been blessed with  inventors, industrialists, and entrepreneurs who can claim that they “built” successful economic enterprises. Yes, our nation has great artists, philosophers, and communicators who “built” our formidable culture.Yes, our nation is rich with independent and collaborative thinkers who now “build” pathways for our future.

But do not forget that there have been the teachers who “built it”in the classrooms where “it” stands for intellectual curiosity, understanding, and knowledge. The “it” that teachers build is education.

I am glad there are so many Americans of every political persuasion who proudly can state, “I built it!” Just so they remember that they “built it” because their teachers taught them how.

Most stakeholders only have the experience of one point of view…from the student desk.

This coming week (May 7-11, 2012) is Teacher Appreciation Week. There will be the customary newspaper coverage of favorite teacher stories,  the hashtag #thankateacher will trend on Twitter, and celebrities will post videos thanking teachers as the most important influences in their lives. These are all wonderful and appropriate tributes to the profession that prepares our nation’s youth to become productive citizens.

But for the other 51 weeks of the year, the teaching profession is struggling under serious criticism. According to the National Education Association (NEA) website:

  • There are 3,232,813 teachers in K-12 public schools, and about 16 percent of these positions become vacant each year.
  • Forty-five percent of new teachers abandon the profession in their first five years.
  • More teachers believe collaborating with colleagues is essential to their work, but many districts still don’t provide time for teachers to learn, share and collaborate.
  • Teachers’ salaries still lag behind those for other occupations requiring a college degree, and the pay gap is growing larger.

The teaching profession dedicated to educating the nation has done a terrible job at self-promotion. Teachers today have failed to educate the public about the value of this great vocation in the same manner that they failed to teach the value of teaching to previous generations, most notably the parents and grandparents of students in schools today.  The result is that the very public that teachers need to enlist in support of the teaching profession is not confident in meeting the criticisms being leveled at educators today.

There is increasing negative political attention turned on the teaching profession. For example, in-between statements of  support for teachers, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was quoted as saying, “They [teachers] only work 180 days,” voicing the popular perception that teachers work only part time.
Of course, there is evidence that counter his claims that teachers do not work that hard; the Wall Street Journal listed a series of facts about the teaching profession in the June 2011 article, Number of the Week: U.S. Teachers’ Hours Among World’s Longest:
  • U.S. educators work 1,097 hours teaching in the classroom, the most of any industrialized nation measured by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
  • American teachers work 1,913 hours a year, just shy of the U.S. average of 1,932 per year.
  • U.S. teachers are slightly more likely to work at home than private-sector workers, the U.S. Labor Department found. They aren’t paid to work weekends but are as likely to do so as private-sector employees — including those scheduled to work Saturdays and Sundays.
In my own state of Connecticut, during the February 2012 State of the State speech, Governor Dannel Malloy made a commitment to educational reform in one breath, and then slammed teachers and the practice of tenure in the next breath saying, “Basically the only thing you [teachers] have to do is show up for four years. Do that, and tenure is yours.” Not surprisingly, his educational  legislation promoting teacher evaluation reform is currently being met with serious resistance by the Connecticut State Teacher’s Union. Politics is polarizing the profession.
This negative attention is dangerous if schools are interested in attracting quality candidates to the teaching  profession. In his opinion piece in the 5/6/12 NYTimes “Teaching Me About Teaching” Charles M. Blow sounded this alarm pointing out,  “A big part of the problem is that teachers have been so maligned in the national debate that it’s hard to attract our best and brightest to see it as a viable and rewarding career choice, even if they have a high aptitude and natural gift for it.” His editorial was accompanied by statistics of the top tier college graduates who will not choose teaching for economic and social reasons; only 37% of responders believed a career in teaching is considered successful.
The irony is that for years teachers have not been effective advocates for their work. Teachers have demonstrated but not taught their students the rigors of teaching; the assumption is that the experience of being a student speaks for the entire profession. Certainly, all occupations have practitioners that can make work look easy to an uninformed public. Any product- a building, a meal, a vaccine, a championship trophy -cannot fully inform the public of the individual or collaborative preparation to make that product a reality. In addition, all work requires some level of training. Teachers study about their craft first at college and later implement these lessons in classrooms. However, the classroom is crucible, a brutal training ground that disputes the notion that “anyone can teach”  as almost half the nation’s new teachers vote for the profession with their feet, leaving within the first five years.

Being a student is only 1/2 of the educational relationship; teachers need to teach the significance of their role

For decades, K-12 teachers have collectively prepared students for careers in the sciences, in mathematics, in the arts, in the humanities, and in the industrial arts. Yet, in preparing students for careers beyond the classroom, there has been no direct instruction on the methodology on the craft of instruction for student learning. Consider how little students today understand about how much time and cognitive effort a teacher has to expend for each lesson plan. Day after day, period after period, students participate in an academic enterprise without acknowledging the multiple components that teachers have included in its construction: IEPs, multiple/emotional  intelligence strategies, Bloom’s levels of understanding, technology, curriculum content, available resources and facility limitations to name a few.
Teaching is challenging work, and in their commitment to provide the nation with all manner of numeracy and literacy skills, teachers have failed to express and assess student understanding of teaching. Students at all grade levels in public or private schools today have little understanding of the increasing demands of the teaching profession which now include incorporating Common Core State Standards, integrating technology for 21st Century Skills, and increasing scrutiny in newly designed evaluations. Ultimately, teachers have failed to communicate the significance of their contributions to a productive society that will result in recruiting the best and the brightest to the profession.
The public’s understanding of education often comes as a “recipient in the desk “point of view, not from the perspective of the teacher charged with engaging and educating every student. Unless the public is persuaded that teachers are critical for our democratic society, the profession will continue to suffer economically and socially. After basking in the attention from stories of the positive influence they have had on on the lives of individual students during Teacher Appreciation Week, teachers need to integrate one more lesson to their repertoire. How ironic that teachers must teach the significance of teaching.