My grandfather – we called him “Pops” – taught math in the New Haven public schools for 32 years. When I was with Pops at a store or restaurant in New Haven, even long after he retired from teaching, we’d invariably run into a former student. I picture my small hand engulfed in his large one, waiting patiently while a fully-grown adult smiled up at Pops (he was a lanky six-foot-three-inches tall in his prime) and recounted stories of being in his class years earlier. Pops peppered his teaching with jokes and puns (“Why is the obtuse triangle always so frustrated? Because it’s never right!”), making even the most mundane math lessons memorable and fun. The first question Pops always asked when we got together was, “What are you learning in math?” and I would wrack my brain to remember so as not to disappoint him. He would pull out his mechanical pencil and the small notepad he kept in his shirt pocket and sketch a related problem: “Try this.” Occasionally, Pops would retreat to his crowded, unfinished basement for a one-on-one tutoring session with a struggling student. In the summers he was a beloved camp director, reaching even more youngsters.
Often under-resourced, under-paid, and under-appreciated, teachers have profound impacts on our children and our future. They interact with young people, influencing their thinking, shaping their world view, and affecting their self-esteem. Students learn far more from teachers than the causes of the Franco-Prussian War, how to take a second derivative of a parametric equation, or the theme of Catcher in the Rye. This Chinese proverb rings true: “Give a person a fish and they eat for a day. Teach a person to fish and you feed them for a lifetime.” Great teachers help students figure out how to discover and learn. Years later students are unlikely to remember all the facts and figures taught, but they will remember how a teacher made them think.
There are more than 85 million teachers in the world today, a number that has been growing across all levels of education. The average global pupil-to-teacher ratio is 23; this is lower in North America and Europe and higher in Sub-Saharan Africa, generally trending with income levels. Can you imagine how difficult it would be for a teacher to control a group of 50 or more students? In most of the world, teachers are predominantly female, though in much of Africa and in India teachers are more likely to be male. During COVID-19, teachers have been especially challenged as they shifted to virtual or hybrid school; they have had to learn new technologies, create new models of synchronous and asynchronous learning, and soothe anxious students who have been struggling through the physical and mental health challenges associated with the pandemic.
To become a teacher in the United States, candidates must earn a bachelor’s degree, student teach, and pass a certification exam. In some states a graduate degree in education is also required; about 60% of U.S. public-school teachers have a master’s degree. Many public schools have more stringent teacher requirements than private schools or even universities; my Ph.D. would qualify me to be a college professor but not a public high school teacher.
After an exciting and successful career in sports management, my husband Michael switched careers to become a high school teacher. For anyone who knows Michael, this is a really good match for his smart, patient, kind, and empathetic personality. He enrolled in a graduate education program, where he took classes in child development and psychology, and completed student teaching in our local school district. For the past 16 years Michael has taught social studies to high school seniors: world history, economics, and Modern American Culture (MAC). MAC is a college-style seminar where students discuss, read, and write about sensitive and timely topics like race, gender roles, and the political divide in America. Michael facilitates the often emotionally-charged discussions handily, as students grapple with complex issues that many have never considered deeply. Students in this class develop a special bond, and when he hosts a post-graduation barbeque at our house, I beam with pride when I hear his students call MAC their “best class” and Mike (he’s on a first-name basis with these students) their “favorite teacher.”
Teachers have the power to alter the course of others’ lives. Take Anne Sullivan and her remarkable ability to connect with and teach Helen Keller, who could not see, hear, or speak. Through unrelenting perseverance and creative engagement, Sullivan opened doors for Keller to communicate and learn. Or consider Jamie Escalante, a math teacher at an East Los Angeles public high school, who was immortalized in the movie Stand and Deliver for establishing a calculus program and helping his largely Latino students from working-class families pass the Advanced Placement exam for college credit. Or what about Sal Kahn, who in 2006 launched the now-famous Khan Academy series of educational videos on topics ranging from trigonometry to microeconomics to world history. Today, Khan Academy videos have a worldwide audience, with nearly two billion views and content that has been translated into dozens of languages.
Many teachers who change lives aren’t recognizable names. They are the middle school teachers who give struggling students the extra attention they need. The elementary school teachers who ask about what is going on at home. The college professors who patiently explain the process of researching a policy paper. Or the high school physics teachers who inspire future scientists.
Yet despite all this, many teachers don’t feel their profession is valued, and some international surveys bear that out. On average globally, teaching is assessed as a “mid-value” profession, below occupations including doctor, lawyer, engineer, policeman, nurse, and accountant. In China and Malaysia the status of teachers is perceived as very high, on par with doctors; in contrast, Brazil and Israel are on the other end of the spectrum, and the United States is somewhere near the middle. Teacher salaries reflect this value and vary greatly around the world. Teachers in Luxemburg and Switzerland are among the highest-paid of any in the world; teachers in the Slovak Republic, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary are the lowest paid. An average American teacher makes $57,900, causing many U.S. teachers to supplement their income with tutoring or summer camp. Still, ask any American kid what they want to be when they grow up? Doctor, teacher, or veterinarian are the most common answers (amid a smattering of other glamorous options: professional athlete, movie star, or superhero).
Teachers are often society’s first line of defense to cope with systemic challenges. In certain communities, teachers provide safety, supervision, and nourishment to children who might otherwise go without. Other teachers are forced to deal with helicopter parents who swoop in and challenge grades. Some teachers must take swift but compassionate actions when they catch their students cheating or plagiarizing – imparting important life lessons. Outside of classroom time teachers create tests, grade papers, provide individualized extra help, write recommendations, and often coach sports or mentor clubs. Teaching in a poor inner-city Chicago school is certainly distinct from teaching in a wealthy San Francisco suburb, just as it is different teaching in London versus Johannesburg versus Taipei. In all cases, though, we ask a lot of these teachers who often at once serve as counselors, caregivers, mentors, role models, as well as educators.
My kids have had some wonderful teachers who supported their unique abilities. My daughter Emma’s fifth-grade teacher stands out in my memory because of a special “reader’s response” assignment she gave that year. Instead of a traditional book log or even templated book reports, this teacher picked a simple but effective method: students were asked to send her an email each week with reflections on what they read. The teacher provided suggested prompts but left the choice of book, topic, and even length of response up to the student. That year Emma shone. She read wonderful books and composed thoughtful email reflections relating her reading to her life in meaningful ways. Emma eagerly awaited replies from the teacher. Just a short email back was all it took: “Great insights, Emma! I also enjoyed that book. I loved how you compared….” It was an assignment that could appeal to different ability levels and was particularly effective for my smart but shy daughter, who had been hesitant to share her voice, anxious at being the center of attention. Now she was empowered to learn and grow at her own pace.
Teachers seldom win prizes or gain public accolades. At the close of a semester or school year, their students move on – to the next class, the next grade. Often teachers do not get to see what their students go on to achieve. Instead, they shift their attention to a new batch of students – with a unique set of issues, capabilities, and perspectives – and restart the process of helping them discover and learn.