Teachers choose their profession to change lives. They pour their minds, hearts and bodies—yes, it is physically demanding work—into the profound responsibility we have given them. Depending on where they teach, they pursue this work with access to different amounts of support, materials and affirmation. We expect them to sustain commitment and do their best every day.
This is a profession that takes time to master. Most teachers are always in the process of becoming better. Even the best can have bad days or a bad year. A few have given their best and are worn out. All are undermined by a policy environment focused on blaming them. To do their best, they need to hold on to the idealism that made them enter this life-changing profession. Whatever their particular situation, they go to the classroom to make the world better by helping our children to grow. We should be grateful to them for embracing this valuable work.
Principals and administrators are also deeply committed to education. Their job is to create a culture of high expectations and success for all students. They must communicate these goals to their staffs, parents and the public, and they must provide the resources, curriculum, direction and professional support that will create classrooms where children flourish. They are the backstop for real accountability. They need to inspire the best in teachers.
Children are the work, and children come with unique personalities, skills, families, experiences, grit, aspirations, assets, security and limits. Some are easy to like, some a challenge. Some engage easily, while others need substantial encouragement to grab the moment. Schools are not always able to provide the optimal conditions for the diversity of learners, but almost every child is affected deeply by one or more teachers along the way.
During my eight years of tutoring kindergarteners, I have seen how difficult it is to engage every child. At times I lose patience, yet their teachers embrace the challenge of pulling them all forward regardless of their place on the starting line. They soldier onward with skill, energy and determination.
What troubles me is that our educators’ belief in education and their sense of responsibility for student success is used against them! If they acknowledge that children face difficulties they are criticized for making excuses, having low expectations or not valuing every child. For years this worked to silence educators who know that a focus on test scores is not the same as a focus on learning. Their job is to build on each child’s strengths, not sharpen testing skills. The form success takes is unique to each child. Testing-based accountability undermines authentic learning and is hard on children.
By bullying educators into silence, policymakers have made it possible to undermine public confidence in public education, siphon public funds away from public schools and ignore the myriad challenges, including poverty, that face our children. Current policy promises success for all without investing in the tools needed for success. It ignores economic inequality and allows it to worsen. It requires that all children succeed by placing full responsibility for creating equality on the shoulders of teachers—a goal teachers embrace but cannot deliver by themselves!
We all have different roles in the fight to make sure public schools serve all children well and to maintain respect for public education in this era of privatization, blame and shame. Educators have to focus on delivering education in the best ways they know. They have to believe in their own power, and education leaders have to demand that everyone does their best, but we need to let our educators tell the truth about the challenges they face and how to address them.
We all need to questions laws that expect more than is feasible and that blame teachers for not fulfilling impossible requirements. The public needs to challenge laws that declare failure if children who start from behind don’t arrive at the finish line at an arbitrary moment chosen by politicians.
We need to invest in the people who make up our school community, and we need to emphasize practices that keep teachers motivated and open to professional growth, retain our best practitioners, attract the next generation of committed educators, foster engaging teaching practices and focus on assets, not weaknesses.
If we want all children to succeed, we need to demand policies that create a just society and an even playing field of opportunity.
Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and the former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.