The night before school started, my son turned to me with his big eyes and his gap-toothed smile. Matter-of-factly, he stated: “Pretty sure I won’t like school this year.” The next night, he sighed: “Well, it wasn’t as bad as I thought.” He’s a tough critic — this was huge.
A week later, he said: “My teacher is just really funny, and she’s good at teaching. . . . I think she really loves her job.” The next week, I received a text from her: “Your son is a cool kid.” My heart swelled: He got her and she got him.
Three months in, and he is happier in school than I have ever seen him. He lights up when he talks about what he is learning. He sleeps next to his reading log, so he won’t forget to fill it out to show his teacher. He beamed when he earned a private lunch with her.
I get it. As a principal and a coach, I have sat in hundreds of classrooms. I have seen this magic. I have watched an amazing first-grade teacher get 20 young people so excited to learn about bears that they did not want to go to recess. I have seen middle schoolers passionately debate a novel in one class and throw spitballs in the next one. I have sat with a high school student who stayed late to finish an assignment from one teacher while not caring enough to pass the class of another.
Our country spends billions of dollars every year to fix education. This often involves seeking the next shiny object as a silver bullet — a fancy tool, a clever schedule, a beautiful lab — but the answer has always been right in front of us.
It is the teacher that matters.
Ask parents what they care about most for their child’s education, and they’ll say they want them to have good teachers. Ask any principal what makes a great school, and the answer is the same. This also goes for researchers identifying the most important factor in a student’s school experience.
But while individuals recognize the importance of teachers, the field is not designed to foster and prioritize teacher quality. Policymakers say teachers matter, yet many places are facing a huge teacher shortage. Leaders say teachers are crucial, yet few school systems have figured out how to recruit, retain and develop this critical asset. Experiments run the gamut from evaluation incentives to professional development to external nonprofit interventions, but the field remains paralyzed.
I believe education reform needs to start by defining and clarifying the role of the teacher. Teachers cannot continue to be curriculum writers, social workers, snack providers, disciplinarians, nurses, technicians and lecturers.
My former professor Jon Saphier taught me to look for three key messages when observing classrooms: “This is Important,” “You Can Do it” and “I Will Support You.”
We can think about the teacher’s role in these same three ways.
This is Important: Students need teachers to teach academic and social-emotional content that is relevant and meaningful. They should not have to create these materials, staying up late at night designing units, making worksheets and paying for resources. They should be given strong, research-based curricula that they can adapt to their classroom. Let someone else figure out the standards, the assessments, the exact questions, the specific tools; and then let teachers make it theirs, allow them to make it come alive for the students they know better than the most brilliant of curriculum designers.
You Can Do It: Students deserve teachers that believe in them. Studies show that a teacher’s expectations are the most important determinant in student achievement. Teachers need to see the genius in every child, even when that child is throwing a fit or just going through the motions. This may not come naturally, which is why schools should create support systems to develop this mindset and psychologically safe opportunities for teachers to learn from such inevitable challenges without shame. Schools should foster inclusive and anti-racist environments, which includes giving teachers ways to move beyond their biases around gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion and disability. In addition, schools need more mental health support and community resources so students and families can get what they need to navigate today’s tremendous challenges. Schools can make a huge difference addressing deep societal issues, but they cannot do it with their current staffing model.
I Will Support You: Students need teachers who encourage and challenge them, who see them as a whole person full of academic and emotional strengths and challenges. Schools can give students more agency over their time and learning, and enable teachers to serve as guides of each student’s journey. Schools can let go of their stubborn commitment to whole-class lectures and accept that teachers and students can thrive when learning takes many forms. To do this well, teachers deserve models and examples of great and varied instruction: small group lessons, one-to-one conferences, morning circle, Socratic seminars, real-world projects, supplemental digital tools. Teachers need access to effective interventions and the support to know what to try for every student. By abandoning the false notion of one-size-fits-all, schools can become spaces for all students and teachers to flourish.
American schools are in a crisis that has been exacerbated by COVID. Teachers are exhausted and overworked, yet the demands continue to pile on. Instead, let’s seize this moment as a call to action, take a step back and clarify the role of the teacher. Every child should be as fortunate as my son, internalizing these three messages every day: “This is Important,” “You Can Do It” and “I Will Support You.” School systems should prioritize these principles and let everything else on teachers’ plates go. Only then will the real conversations and solutions about teacher recruitment, retention and development begin, and the real magic will emerge.