Friday, October 23, 2009

The Teacher is the Key

By Esther Wojcicki
Chair of the Board, Creative Commons, Journalism/English Teacher, Palo Alto High School

Here is a pretty shocking statistic.

More than 40% of teachers today are disheartened and disappointed in their jobs according to a study just released by Learning Points Associates. It is hard to be an inspirational, caring teacher if you don't want to be there.

The study showed that seven in 10 teachers cited testing as major drawback and 61 percent also cited lack of support from administrators and nearly 75% cited "discipline and behavior issues" in the classroom.

This is a very challenging situation for policy makers because the solution to the education crisis in our country is the teacher. Last week Michelle Obama wrote an article in US News and World Report that was entitled "Teachers are Key to a Successful Economy." I couldn't agree more.

The Gates Foundation also came to the same conclusion after spending years focusing on small schools. They are now focusing on teacher effectiveness.

As a long time teacher at Palo Alto High in Palo Alto, CA and someone who has seen multiple education fads come and go, I think thought leaders have finally come to the right focus -- the teacher is the key. No matter what books are provided, no matter what curriculum is required ... the key is how the teacher feels about what she is teaching and how she treats her students.

I am sure everyone can remember a teacher they liked, but they can also remember a teacher they disliked because the teacher seemed to dislike students. Students know when a teacher doesn't want to be there; they know it just by being in the classroom. It's not fun. At one point these teachers probably liked students and teaching, but they now somehow feel trapped in a job that no longer provides the same pleasures it once did. These teachers actually don't dislike students; they dislike what they are required to do-- teach to a test, like NCLB tests, year after year and work with ineffective administrators.

Over the past eight years teachers nationwide have been teaching to the NCLB test which is why many of them are disheartened and burned out.

No matter what policy makers dictate, when a teacher closes the door and is the classroom alone with the students, he/she is in charge. If the teacher is well-trained, then the students will learn more. If the teacher is happy to be there, then the students will be more content in the classroom. The teacher sets the tone; the teacher provides the activities; the teacher plans the day. Happy students work harder. Happy teachers teach more effectively and that is what we need---effective teachers.

It sounds like an old adage, but what we need to do as a nation is to support teachers in the classroom and modify the NCLB Act which is now up for Congressional renewal. Supporting teachers is key to our success as a nation. Support means supporting increases in teachers salaries, respecting the role of teachers in society, donating money to foundations that support teachers, volunteering to work in the classroom, and modifying the NCLB Act to so that teachers are not motivated to teach to the test.

This post is the first of a series by Ms. Wojcicki published in the Huffington Post.


  1. Preach it, Esther! I, too, was startled by the numbers in that study. Another educator asked me today via Twitter why I had this reaction; it is his impression that teachers would be quitting in droves due to negative changes in the profession if the economy were in better shape. That idea startled me even more!

  2. I'm pleased to see that at a conference focusing on Education there is at least one classroom educator on the (large) panel. I do hope that those discussing education will remember what the true purpose is - educating and guiding children. I agree that supporting teachers is essential - that's how we can do our best work.

  3. Yes, I noted very few educators. We have so many creative, successful educators who have succeeded, why can't we implement their techniques and success on a broader scope? Recently I was present in a math class the teacher kept presenting equations to be solved using a Smartboard. Rather dull, when asked why m=slope and not s, the teacher responded, "...I don't know..." she possessed web access on the Smartboard, she completed the lesson early...teaching is an art, even with restraints NCLB we can be creative!! Perhaps the students can help the teachers be more creative, if the teachers tried....

  4. I used to assume that the teacher is the key to a student's success, but upon critical reflection after teaching at-risk kids for many years, I realize that the teacher is not the key to a students success. I would say the teacher is part of the combination code that can open a student up to learning. The other parts of the combination code are parents, other family members and friends, the education system, and the community. Students have to be wiling to use the combination to unlock their potential.
    When I still assumed I was the key to a student's success, if the student was unsuccessful, I felt it was my fault. I was the key so what was I doing wrong. The self-blame caused me much anguish.I can understand why so many teachers leave the profession within the first five years. I now realize yes, a teacher is important but not the only factor.

    School boards reinforce the notion that the teacher is the key by sending teachers on countless PD sessions to fix us. I spent many years looking for the perfect way to differentiate my teaching practice so that I could be the key for my students. There is an entire "teacher is the key" industry out there that benefits by offering books, lectures etc. that reinforces the notion the teacher is the key.

    Now that I realize I am not "the key" but part of a "combination to a lock", I love teaching even more.