Regardless of where you stand in the education reform debate, in Connecticut or nationally, it is critical to appreciate how perceptions of educators and schools affect the important work that is carried out every day.
All stakeholders want what is best for the students. Part of this equation is elevating the profession of education, making it attractive financially and culturally for those who seek a career in teaching, providing adequate evaluations and support to our educators, and cherishing our teachers for their significant role in society.
A general decline in teacher morale did not begin with Gov.Dannel P. Malloy's education reform efforts. In many ways, it is an issue that has permeated our culture over the years. This has to change if we are to take meaningful steps toward genuine reform.
Teacher morale has been eroding for some time, culminating in the recent MetLife survey that found teacher job satisfaction at its lowest point in two decades. It is time to transform the way our society views educators and the noble responsibilities they have. In doing so, we have to re-examine the very purpose of schooling.
If the goal is to nurture the values, habits and skills related to lifelong learning, critical thinking, democracy and global citizenship, and if we recognize that teachers are integral to this process, then we must act in concert to strengthen the profession. This includes having open-minded, honest and respectful discourse about how to move forward in a constructive and mutually beneficial way. Test results, evaluation practices, accountability measures and standardization are useful, but when they take precedence over the aforementioned ideals of education, we are surrendering to politicized forces.
Negative portrayals of teachers, misconceptions about schools and the general cultural attitude toward education wear away at teacher morale and have an effect on teaching and learning. This is as true in the wealthiest districts as it is in the poorest. Representations of teachers and schooling in popular culture, the media and from other sources have propagated a damaging view of education, one that certainly affects the way students see themselves as learners and citizens, and one that affects teachers' perceptions of their effectiveness and worth.
I have visited many schools and classrooms in various parts of the world. Some of them are enormously impoverished. I have been in classrooms with 90 students and one teacher, minimal resources, no technology and myriad other challenges. To be sure, intolerable and appalling access and achievement gaps exist in these societies as well. Significantly, though, teachers in these countries are tremendously respected and admired, educational excellence is expected and educational attainment is treasured. Shouldn't this be the case everywhere?
Undoubtedly the most important variable in achieving and maintaining educational excellence is the way in which teachers, schools and education as a whole are regarded. Perhaps the single greatest contributing factor to teachers' effectiveness is their self-perception, which derives from support, respect, feeling valued and having a voice.
The common theme in all of the highest performing schools and educational systems is the cultural status of teachers, bolstered by effective teacher preparation programs, meaningful professional development and salaries commensurate with other valued professions. Of all of the things we can learn and emulate from Finland, Singapore, South Korea and the like, the most imperative is the high esteem in which those societies hold their teachers and the institution of education.
One of the constants that becomes obvious when studying international comparisons of educational systems over the decades, no matter the country, is that high achievement corresponds with the positive, even exalted, perceptions of teachers and education.
Teachers are educated, professional experts. Teachers' concerns are valid, and they must be a central part of any reform process. The key to true, enduring educational reform in Connecticut and nationally is a cultural paradigm shift regarding teachers, schools and education. Anything less is counterproductive and a dereliction of the obligation we all have — teachers, parents, community members, politicians, the media, business people and so many others — to ensure that all of our children receive an excellent education.
David Bosso, the 2012 Connecticut Teacher of the Year, teaches social studies at Berlin High School.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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