The task of the excellent teacher is to stimulate "apparently ordinary" people to unusual effort. The tough problem is not in identifying winners: it is in making winners out of ordinary people. ~K. Patricia Cross
The Plight of Education in our American Public School System—Part Two: School Teachers Must Be Celebrated Not Tolerated



American teachers must be celebrated! In the United States, there are a two or three professions that have long been recognized as occupations of high repute; medical doctors, lawyers, and accountants. There is a general consensus that typically views those professions as being worthwhile and of high value. Many parents steer their children toward those professions believing that by doing so they are helping to not only positively impact society but that their children are also adding value to their family’s image. Parents feel good when their children become doctors and lawyers and they celebrate the moment, often for a lifetime.

Very rarely are school teachers sprinkled into the mix of reputable professions. Even less seldom are they publicly celebrated for simply being teachers. In fact, the teaching profession in primary and secondary levels is often viewed in a rather disparaging light. If they are celebrated, it’s only one or two teachers randomly selected per town or state as “Teacher of the Year.” The joy of that moment quickly dissipates as they return back to work. Teachers perform one of the most “thankless” jobs in America.  This attitude toward the teaching profession can be linked to overall low achievement in our children and low morale in the teaching profession.

While there are many reasons why our American school system is plummeting, Finland schools has vastly improved in reading, math, science and overall literacy over the past decade. In fact, Finnish children are considered to be some of the best readers in the world, as reading is at the forefront of how they measure progress in academic achievement. High proficiency in reading is expected for academic success and encouraged very early on. However, there are several factors for their remarkable results. At the top of the list is Finland’s attitude toward the teaching profession.

In this Nordic country of just shy 5.5 million people there are 62,000 people who are considered the elite of society—schoolteachers. The teaching profession is viewed as an honorable profession one that parents would be proud if their children entered into. Teachers are heard, believed, and supported by administration and by the society at large.

Some may argue that it is impossible to successfully link attitude to overall achievement. Consider this: In countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo the rape of women is amongst the highest in the world and the rate of women with HIV and AIDS is growing daily. In Afghanistan the majority of women are illiterate and 87% of women experience regular domestic violence from men. In Nepal early marriage and childbirth exhaust the country’s undernourished women. One in 24 will die in during childbirth. Those who are unmarried are sold for sex trafficking between the ages of 9 to 11.  Many researchers link these repressive conditions of women to the overall “attitude” toward women in these countries. It’s not hard to see.

In Finland teachers are respected and given the resources needed to do their job. In America, though we have access to many resources, infrequently are those resources properly appropriated for the teachers use. Why should a teacher have to beg for menial supplies such as paper, pencils, and supplemental reading materials? When technology fails from general wear and tear why should it take months or even years for equipment to get repaired or replaced when the technology is necessary to help improve the learning process? The answer is that the overall attitude toward the profession is low and underappreciated.

Medical doctors don’t beg for up-to-date medical equipment. Many lawyers work in sprawling offices, furnished with the best libraries and up-to-date West Law books, as they should. Yet many teachers working in underserved neighborhoods lack the basic resources needed to get the job done efficiently. This must change. In Finland, teachers are trusted to do whatever it takes to turn young lives around. Just think about that concept for a moment. Teachers are trusted. Just the very idea of trusting our teachers to make quality decisions to improve the lives of our children is highly commendable.

If teachers are not trusted, then the entire system fails. The very basis of quality education in American is reliant upon trusting our teachers’ ability to make quality decisions that will impact our children positively in years to come. Trusting our teachers will require a major shift in the way education is played out in America because it is possible that teachers may have to deviate away from the “common core” in order to get extraordinary results. And in America, confronting what is commonly accepted is very controversial and often rejected.  Teachers may have to challenge the false ideology that standardized testing actually improves academic performance.

In Finland, if one method fails, teachers consult with colleagues to try something else. In America if one method fails they continue to use the same method for several decades as big profit is made from educational failures. For example, our prison system makes decisions on its expansion, based on the failure rate of Black and Latino children in urban areas in first through third grades. One system failures produce profit for another system. I will save this topic for a future blog post. In order to improve our education system, teachers may not need to be policed because their students are not “making the grade,” when a myriad of other factors may contribute to low performance such as: improper nutrition, instability in the home, improper grade placement, or simply disinterest.

Finland does not spend millions of dollars to measure teacher success like in America. There is a grave concern when teachers are required to perform but are not trusted to make the decisions that will help to improve performance. It’s unfair but even more so, it’s unreasonable and illogical. In Finland, there are teachers that make decisions to retain students who have not proven to be able to move forward. Retention in America has been traded for social promotion. And retention in America has been stigmatized and labeled as negative, especially in poor urban schools. Millions of students graduate from high school in America annually, ill-prepared for the workforce and life in general.

Imagine, if teachers were given the authority to identify students that need to be retained, especially during the formative years, and provide the additional support and time needed for that student to develop and comprehend the subject matter, America’s workforce would be one of the strongest and smartest in the world.  We prepare kids to take tests but fail to prepare them for life. Unfortunately, teachers are graded on their student test scores not on measurable student achievement and learning. Teachers in Finland live by the motto, “This is what we do every day, prepare kids for life.” The educational system in Finland supports students who need extra help by providing them with “royal tutoring” often provided by the teachers themselves.

Finnish teachers know their students because they are able to spend proper time with them discovering both their strengths and weaknesses. With regards to education in America our ship is sinking fast and we must take action. We must inspire our sons and daughters to become educators, more specifically schoolteachers. We have to confront negative stereotypes and half truths concerning the teaching profession. It is our obligation to once again make teachers great in the eyes of the general public. When our attitude changes about teachers then and only then will we begin to see change.

Dr. Aaron Lewis 4/26/16