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Changing Our Perception of the Teaching Profession

 “Those who can do, those who can’t, teach.” –Unknown

 I hate this quote.

How is it that teachers are responsible for the training and crafting of all of the world’s professions, yet it is deemed socially inadequate for a talented individual to become a teacher?

It is odd that we live in a country that puts education on such an emblazoned pedestal, but fails to holdits teachers in high esteem. The fact that teachers don’t earn nearly as much as doctors, lawyers, or businessmen absolutely baffles me. Teachers—especially those who work in under-resourced communities—must be masters of both their craft and human personality. They must sit in front of a room of 30 or more individual beings who range from dispassionate and dispossessed to affluent and astute. They must then try to instill knowledge based off standards that are relatively arbitrary and inadequately interesting to the highly stimulated youth of our time. Let’s not talk about the work that takes places outside the classroom. Furthermore, in urban environments, teachers must be more than instructors; they must play the role of both social workers and role models. Teachers need to be able to intervene in difficult situations and help students who might not have any support in their home lives. They need to be the launching point for students’ futures. In short, to be effective, teachers have to be multi-talented, innovative, resilient, and interesting all at the same time.

Yet, many of my peers, admittedly very intelligent and talented young people, refuse to go into teaching because of a nagging feeling that they can’t be just a teacher. Or many of them opt to go into educational policy or bureaucratic leadership in order to make more “large scale” change, as if teaching hundreds of students a year cannot make a difference in the world. If we are to begin truly changing the problem of education in this country, we need to start changing our perception of the importance of the teaching profession. This means higher pay, better training, and more social appreciation.

There are many academic debates surrounding the problem of education in this country, and though there are many different solutions, study after study shows that the most effective way to increase a student’s performance is to have an effective teacher in the classroom. But we cannot attract great teachers if the teaching profession is still so undervalued in our country. The countries with the top education systems recruit their teachers from the top of their classes, pay them well, and most importantly, there is prestige surrounding the career. Teaching should not be a humanitarian enterprise that someone only does for a few years before going off to make “real” money (cough TFA cough), but it needs to be something that people realize is challenging, rewarding, and profoundly significant. Salary is important, but without the social esteem, we are sacrificing our children to academically mediocre individuals, who are only teaching because they couldn’t do “something else.”

The idea that we even have to debate whether or not teachers should be paid more is not only laughable but also insulting. Yes, more pay will not turn bad teachers into better teachers. Sure, it can inspire some teachers to try harder, but the real point is that the amount we pay certain professions is indicative of the value we give them. More pay will encourage more talented individuals to teach, not solely because they are money hungry, but salary is a signifier that the job they have is important and appreciated. Greater social status for teachers would also spur more effective teaching programs, that are not merely centered around “book-learnin’,” but are competitive and experience-oriented, similar to training programs for careers such as law or medicine. Accordingly, if teachers are valued more, students will undoubtedly begin to place a higher value on education. They will know that the person who is teaching them is not someone who is unhappy and wants a better job, but someone who is the cream of the crop. Someone who has been put through intense training, highly intelligent, passionate, and is in the classroom because they have an important role to play in a student’s life. A higher appreciation of teachers will coincide with a higher value on education.

But pay is not the magic bullet to improving perception around teachers. We can start by not demonizing teachers who may not perform up to standards, but actively work to improve them, and not just fire them and leave students in instruction-free classrooms. We can begin to send verbal thank you’s to the teachers in our lives either in our schools or in our communities. We can also stop discouraging talented students to go into teaching because of a lack of money or some myth of being unable to enact “real change.” Changing our perception of teachers must begin on the ground.

The world is moving forward at a shockingly fast pace, and our students need to be educated in order to compete with it. I promise you that if you have a great teacher, you can have great students. Yes, we can (and should) debate promise zones, charter, public, and private schools, standardized tests, property taxes, social contexts, principals, curriculum, policy, unions, etc., but a good teacher can do wonders whether they are teaching in a sewer or on Mars.

We value education, it’s about time we start understanding how important teachers are to the equation. If you ask me, it should be common sense.