Why Teach?

I have been a teacher long enough to remember the start of the current education reform movement. When Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education issued 1983’s “A Nation at Risk” report, teachers were informed they were failing their students and our schools were failing their country, perpetuating a “tide of mediocrity” that could threaten America’s very existence. The bullseye was placed squarely on the back of the country’s education system, and over subsequent decades a steady barrage of slings and arrows in the guise of “accountability measures” came from politicians and policy makers. PPO’s, standards and testing became the norm. We prepped and proctored, and when we eventually had test results, we found out what we already knew. Our test scores were closely correlated with income levels, and reflected not the failure of our schools, but the status of our society.

Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press

When No Child Left Behind imposed even more accountability measures and sanctions for not meeting adequate yearly progress, we all knew that the 2014 deadline for 100% proficiency would never be a reality. It’s pretty tough to meet adequate yearly progress when there are more pressing concerns such as adequate weekly attendance and adequate daily nutrition standing in the way. Yet, for the better part of thirty years, teachers have been prevailed upon to work harder, to get better test results from their students and to restore our country’s health and status by producing shiny widget-like Lake Wobegon students, all college- and career-ready, regardless of the influence of anything outside of our classrooms.

Fast-forward to January 2011 when the most vicious attacks on teachers began in earnest in Ohio and in many other states throughout the country. The Norman Rockwell schoolmarm, high-collared and prim, was re-captioned as a union thug. Political rhetoric about minimal workdays, summers and holidays off and extravagant benefits and retirement plans flooded the media and cyberspace. The new policy battle cry became, “Fire the bad teachers and bring in the new, energetic corps in their white hats on their white horses to save our students.” And to that end, we are going to evaluate teachers more, pay them based on “merit” and silence their voices in determining teaching and learning conditions, all while cutting state education funding — forcing massive layoffs and the elimination of many important educational options. So, why teach?

I have the privilege in my current position to work with amazing teachers from across the state of Ohio, and I have spent the past several months standing shoulder to shoulder with them at the Statehouse regional rallies and in delivering 1,298,301 signatures to the Secretary of State. I am proud of my profession, proud of my fellow educators, and I believe I speak for them when I answer the question this way:

We teach because we make a difference. As the nation’s space shuttle program winds down, first teacher in space Christa McAuliffe’s words still live on…”I touch the future. I teach.” We know that our students are more than test scores and so are teachers. We know that teachers are not motivated by “performance pay” or bonuses, but by seeing the wave of understanding wash over a student’s face or by doling out a much-needed hug. Daily, teachers see progress that will never register on a standardized test — the student who finally comes to school more than once a week, the freshman who moves from a fourth grade to a fifth grade reading level, the special needs student who stops crying out of frustration and develops a sense of self-confidence. And as teachers, we know that these things are just as important, and maybe more so, than academic achievement measured by standardized tests. But we also know that these events are difficult to quantify, measure and evaluate.

We teach because we have a passion for what we do and the students we serve. Many of us choose the most difficult schools, the most challenging student populations because our passion is closely linked to social justice. We are compelled to use our knowledge and skills where they are most needed, even if our “results” may never really count to policy makers.

But mostly, we teach because we care. We didn’t enter this profession to become rich. And our rewards are largely intrinsic and oftentimes don’t come until long after the fact when we run into a former student who thanks us for something we never even knew we did — because what we did was care. Many of us became teachers because we once had a teacher who cared. Mrs. Glikes taught me to love grammar and took me in as a runaway, and Mr. Krulcik taught me about the legislative process and how to drive a stick shift. Both of them cared about me in a way that went above and beyond my homework and test scores, and that’s what I remember long after I diagrammed my last sentence and moved on from student government. Both of them showed me that I was important as a person, and both of them inspired me to pay it forward and become a teacher.

Now more than ever, we teachers need to acknowledge our importance in the lives of the young people we teach. We need to be sure that everyone around us — family, friends, community members —recognizes and appreciates the contributions we make to our society and to their future. We need to keep our voices strong above our critics and not allow ourselves to be silenced by politics and policy because we are the experts who know what’s best for our students and our schools. There is no doubt we are in the most challenging time of our profession, and many of us feel beaten down and demoralized by attacks and propaganda. But we are the only ones who can stand tall for our profession and carry the message to the public and all future teachers: we teach because we care, and we DO make a difference.

By Dr. Michele Winship, Education Reform Consultant, Ohio Education Association

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