Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to do a great deal of speaking, presenting and collaborating with educators all over the country. In talking with educators from every state as well as a number of the U.S. territories, I have gained a unique perspective of the state of education in our country. Now, I am not going to pretend to be an expert, but I want to share some of the things I have seen, heard and experienced. I will go a bit out of order from the title to explain my observations.
There are bad teachers teaching in our schools. I have seen them. I have talked to them and listened to them talk. I have heard more stories from other educators about these bad teachers than I would ever have time to share. They are out there in our schools teaching students every single day.
While this sounds bad, the reality is that these teachers are by far in the minority. They are few and far between but unfortunately they get all the press. These teachers end up on the 5 o’clock news for their antics and often embarrass our entire profession.
To be clear, I am not talking about the teachers whose students’ standardized test scores are low. Nor am I talking about the teachers who are labeled “bad” by some subjective administrator evaluation. I am talking about those teachers who are demeaning to children. The ones who teach the same way in year one as they do in year 31. They are out there, and nearly every teacher or administrator I talked to could point out at least one in their building or district.
As I have traveled and spoken to media, education lobbyists in Washington, D.C., and even a handful of politicians and policymakers, I see lots of ugly. That is not a knock on these people’s personal grooming, but more on the actions of the individuals within our government and our major media outlets. Despite what people want to believe, real change in our country’s educational system will only happen with a concentrated and real effort on the part of at least one of the two major influencers — media or government.
The national media has more power to change public perception and put pressure on politicians than any teachers union or grassroots movement in schools or on social media. Yet, they choose to report on the negative and continue to perpetuate the stereotypes that prohibit educators in our country from achieving a level of professional respect that many other professions are afforded. It is literally ugly at times to watch the education stories that show up on the news and in the papers. Media outlets are letting the few bad teachers tell the story for an entire profession.
Government is such an easy target these days in an election year where everyone is pointing fingers and casting stones. However, the reality is our state and national governments are doing little to help the state of education in our country. We have politicians around the country speaking of the importance of special programs and extracurricular activities in our students’ schools. Yet, when it comes down to voting and allocating resources, those are the first to get cut.
Of course, I saved the best for last which is the good I have seen. Despite the bad teachers, disinterested media and incompetent policymakers, there is good abounding in education, and it is everywhere. I could write for days about the stories I have heard from educators across the country and beyond. One such story is of Chad Miller, a teacher from Hawaii, who shared with me his school’s mission of promoting peace and a philosophical approach to learning. Then I was blown away when I learned that the Dalai Lama himself visited Chad’s school to talk about his mission and the work of the teachers and students. The work that he and colleagues are doing along with their students is inspirational to say the least.
I am constantly amazed by the sheer number of teachers who share their very best work and that of their students through social media. They have no obligation to do so, but still choose to share in an effort to better learning for all students. Spend an hour following a hashtag or a discussion thread, and you will see powerful work happening in 140 characters every minute of every day.
In my heart, I believe an overwhelming majority of educators are doing good work. They are working day in and day out to the very best of their abilities. They spend countless hours perfecting their craft and making the learning experiences in their classrooms the best they can be despite the lack of funding and professional respect.
What does this all mean? What have I taken away from this? Well, it is actually quite simple to me. Celebrate the good, fight the bad, and acknowledge the ugly.
We must bring each other up in a genuine manner and celebrate the good around us. Send a note to a peer who is doing something positive or trying something new. Encourage the positive work that is happening in your schools in big and small ways. We cannot settle for mediocrity nor should we tolerate it, but need to fight against all forms of “bad” in our schools.
We need to provide opportunities to support and improve teachers, but also know when enough is enough. Cut our losses on those teachers who refuse to improve and focus on those who have a chance to be better. Acknowledge the ugly media campaigns and political circus, but don’t spend our time focusing on things we really don’t have control over. Recognize and be informed, but remain focused on what is important — the students. At the end of the day, we must remember that above the tides of ugly and bad that can easily discourage our work as educators, there is far more good that we must recognize and appreciate.
Josh Stumpenhorst (@stumpteacher) is a sixth-grade language arts and social science teacher at Lincoln Junior High School in Naperville, Ill. His work has been recognized by the International Society of Technology Educators as a member of the Emerging Leaders Class of 2011, and he is the Illinois Computer Educators’ 2012 Educator of the Year and the 2012 Illinois Teacher of the Year. He blogs at Stump the Teacher, which has received EduBlog Awards nominations.