by CHARLES M. BLOW
This week is National Teacher Appreciation Week, and, as far as I’m concerned, they don’t get nearly enough.
On Tuesday, the United States Department of Education is hoping that people will take to Facebook and Twitter to thank a teacher who has made a difference in their lives. I want to contribute to that effort. And I plan to thank a teacher who never taught me in a classroom but taught me what it meant to be an educator: my mother.
She worked in her local school system for 34 years before retiring. Then she volunteered at a school in her district until, at age 67, she won a seat on her local school board. Education is in her blood.
Through her I saw up close that teaching is one of those jobs you do with the whole of you — trying to break through to a young mind can break your heart. My mother cared about her students like they were her own children. I guess that’s why so many of them dispensed with “Mrs. Blow” and just called her Mama.
She wasn’t just teaching school lessons but life lessons. For her, it was about more than facts and figures. It was about the love of learning and the love of self. It was the great entangle, education in the grandest frame, what sticks with you when all else falls away. As Albert Einstein once said: “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”
She showed me what a great teacher looked like: proud, exhausted, underpaid and overjoyed. For great teachers, the job is less a career than a calling. You don’t become a teacher to make a world of money. You become a teacher to make a world of difference. But hard work deserves a fair wage.
That’s why I have a hard time tolerating people who disproportionately blame teachers for our poor educational outcomes. I understand that not every teacher is a great one. But neither is every plumber, or every banker or every soldier. Why then should teachers be demonized so much?
I won’t pretend to have all the policy prescriptions to address our country’s educational crisis, but beating up teachers isn’t the solution. We must be honest brokers in our efforts to fix a broken system.
Do we need teacher accountability? Yes.
Must unions be flexible? Yes.
Must new approaches be tried? Yes.
But is it just as important to address the poverty, stress and hopelessness that some children bring into the classroom, before the bell rings and the chalk screeches across a blackboard? Yes.
Do we need to take a closer look at pay and incentives for teachers? Yes.
Do we need to lift them up a bit more than we tear them down? A thousand times, yes!
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.
A 2010 McKinsey & Company report entitled “Closing the Talent Gap: Attracting and Retaining Top-Third Graduates to Careers in Teaching” found that top-performing nations like Singapore, Finland and South Korea recruit all of their teachers from the top third of graduates and then even screen from that group for “other important qualities.” By contrast, in the United States, “23 percent of new teachers come from the top third, and just 14 percent in high poverty schools, which find it especially difficult to attract and retain talented teachers. It is a remarkably large difference in approach, and in results.”
According to the report, starting teacher salaries in 2010 averaged $39,000 a year. Let’s assume that federal, state and local taxes eat up a third. That would leave a take-home pay as low as $26,000. However, according to the Project on Student Debt by the Institute for College Access and Success, a college senior graduating that year carried an average of $25,250 in student loans. The math just doesn’t work out.
Furthermore, jobs in education were slashed substantially from August 2008 to August 2011. According to an October White House report: “Nearly 300,000 educator jobs have been lost since 2008, 54 percent of all job losses in local government.”
If we want better educational outcomes, we need to attract better teachers — and work to retain them. A good place to start is with respect and paychecks. And a little social media appreciation once a year wouldn’t hurt either.
So, on Tuesday, I plan to send this message on Twitter: To the teacher who taught me what it means to be a teacher: My mama. Everybody’s mama.
What will you tweet?
Charles M. Blow is a New York Times Columnist and nationally-known commentator: “I invite you to visit my blog By The Numbers, join me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter, or e-mail me at [email protected]”