What It Means to Be A Teacher in 2018


Teacher Appreciation Week is an aspiration week. Beth Schmidt, a former teacher, nonprofit founder, and Emerson Collective's Education Portfolio Director, explains that expectations of our teachers have changed. In order to truly appreciate teachers in America, we must elevate the teaching profession and recognize its value.

Jessica Lander is a high school teacher in Lowell, Massachusetts, where she teaches 153 students—many of them immigrants—who speak more than 40 languages. To educate students on the power of civic engagement in America, she introduced a curriculum called Generation Citizen. Students unanimously chose gun violence as their community’s greatest crisis, then researched the issue, read articles, and interviewed local leaders. After concluding that their community should run a gun buy-back program, they presented their case to the head of the Lowell Police Department, who signed on. Jessica’s class wrote letters, created a social media campaign, translated posters into different languages, reached out to newspapers, went on local radio shows, and wrote op-eds to get the community involved. After two and a half months, 38 guns were turned in, and Jessica’s class has become “hooked” on the power of being civically engaged.

In Los Angeles, California, Alisha Mernick, a high school teacher within the DonorsChoose.org network, responded to the dire need for a more positive school climate. To address bullying, she created a project for her students to encounter and discuss the ways in which culture reinforces stereotypes and expectations around gender roles, sexuality, race, beauty, and societal values. Through media analysis, she asked students to appropriate familiar images and create artwork remixing those images to communicate a critical message about the values and expectations of American culture that often result in bullying.

In addition to teaching Steinbeck and subtraction, our teachers are tasked with molding our nation’s young people into model citizens by addressing critical issues of our time—gun violence, bullying, and racism. Teachers address these tasks with grace, urgency and even love. They innovate in their classrooms to engage and reach all students, inspiring and encouraging the promise of change. They refuse to allow students to harden to their own potential, offering acceptance and empathy in the midst of a nation who will not.

In this photo, Marissa Molina teaches Spanish at the Denver School of Science and Technology.

Yet, the teaching profession is deeply undervalued for the critical role teachers play in our society. We do not provide teachers with the tools and support—reimagined school structures, professional development, and compensation—that they need.

The physical design and space of the American classroom has not changed since 1905 when teachers were training students to work in factories during the Industrial Revolution. American teachers still stand in front of overcrowded classrooms meeting the Carnegie Unit standard, defined as 120 hours of contact time with students, or one hour of instruction on a subject per day, five days a week, for 24 weeks per year.

Teacher training has also remained stagnant. According to the National Council on Teacher Quality’s 2018 Teacher Prep Review, only about six percent of traditional graduate programs earn a grade of A, “signifying that they make an effort to match their student teachers with strong mentor teachers and that they provide an acceptable frequency of observation and feedback to their candidates.”

Perhaps most importantly, perception of the American teacher has also not budged. America – a country that prides itself on innovation, cutting-edge skillsets and opportunity for all – does not value the leaders who disseminate the knowledge to our nation’s brain trust to reach those goals. The value of our nation’s teachers is reflected in the way we compensate them. Just last week, teachers across Arizona walked out of their classrooms to protest their low salaries, which are more than $10,000 below the national average of $59,000 per year. Teachers in Colorado followed suit.

Despite all of this stagnation, the role, responsibilities, and expectations of our nation’s teachers have been elevated. At this moment, the stakes are high for the future potential of our country, and it is indeed, teachers themselves who are the first responders to champion change within their outdated classroom walls.

Last week Mandy Manning, a teacher in Spokane, Washington, was awarded National Teacher of the Year. Manning, who teaches English to newly arrived immigrants and refugees from countries such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Guatemala, Myanmar, Mexico and Tanzania, embraced the moment by handing President Trump a stack of letters from her refugee students. The letters described how “people in power, particularly the president, should be very careful about how he or anybody else in power communicates about our immigrant refugees and, frankly, any group of people.”

Today in America, Teacher Appreciation Week is an aspirational week. In order to truly appreciate the teaching profession in America – and to raise its value in society – we must elevate teachers among the respected doctors and business leaders of our time, professionalize the industry with rigorous teacher preparation, compensation and support, and offer teachers new, innovative structures in which to develop our nation’s greatest assets. Only then will we have acknowledged teachers’ evolved and critical roles in weaving the fabric of American society.