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It's all about the teacher

Bushwhack through the endless debates about education and there’s one truism that few would dispute: When it comes to the quality of a child's education, it's all about the teacher.

By Connie Matthiessen

I've seen my children thrive with teachers they loved: The science teacher who encouraged my daughter's love of animals and nature; the humanities teacher who helped my son through an awkward middle school phase by fueling his fascination with history; the physics teacher who held my older son's ninth grade class in thrall with weekly, hands-on physics experiments. Teachers like these inspire and encourage students, creating a chemistry of curiosity, excitement, and learning that makes their lessons come alive.

When my kids have had great teachers, they talked excitedly about what they were learning, and needed no encouragement to study for tests and get their homework done. In contrast, when they've had teachers who were burnt out, incompetent, or just phoning it in, they've slogged apathetically through the school year. Even the most compelling and inspiring information turns to ashes in the hands of an indifferent teacher.

The latest research confirms the essential role that teachers play. An analysis of the world's top education systems by McKinsey & Company concluded, "Research has shown that of all the controllable factors influencing student achievement, the most important by far is the influence of the classroom teacher."

Teaching, undervalued

If parents, educators, politicians, and pundits all agree about the importance of teachers, why do teachers continue to be underpaid and under-respected? As Michelle Schearer, 2011 Teacher of the Year observed, "Upon my graduation [from Princeton] even well-meaning adults asked why I chose teaching when I 'could have done anything I wanted.'…It’s puzzling that one would bemoan what is lacking in our public schools and, in the same breath, question education as a profession for an Ivy League graduate."

On top of being poorly paid and disrespected, many teachers face frustrating — even dangerous — working conditions. Many don't receive adequate training in school, and then are thrown into the classroom without support or mentoring. Teachers face constant budget cuts that impact everything from the size of their classes to the quality of their textbooks. Many teachers deal every day with the fallout of unemployment and poverty, including hunger, violence, neglect, and discouragement.

It's no surprise, then, that there's deep dissatisfaction in the teaching profession. More than 30 percent of new teachers leave the profession after five years. This high attrition rate is pushing the U.S. toward a teacher shortage, because there are fewer teachers to fill slots as baby boomers reach retirement age.

According to recent report by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (NCTAF),  " In addition to hemorrhaging teaching talent at the beginning of the career, we are about to lose accomplished teaching talent at the veteran end of the career on an unprecedented scale. The teaching career pipeline is collapsing at both ends."

How the winners do it

The teaching landscape looks very different in Singapore, Finland, and South Korea, countries whose students receive top scores year after year in international examinations. Some highlights from the McKinsey report:

  • In Singapore, teacher training is selective and rigorous, and prospective teachers receive financial support during training. The government keeps tabs on compensation in other professions, and ensures that teachers' salaries keep pace.
  •  In Finland, teaching programs are extremely competitive, and candidates receive tuition support and stipends. Salaries for teachers are only slightly higher than in the U.S., but the profession is highly respected. As one Finnish education expert told researchers, "People know if you've been trained as a teacher, you must really be something special."
  •  In South Korea, where teaching salaries are generous, teaching is the most popular profession among young people.

These countries now lead the world in education quality — and they’re leaving the U.S. far behind. Why? Because teaching is taken seriously, not seen as a fallback profession for those who cannot do anything else, which is a stereotype that persists in this country. As one South Korean government official said, "The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers."

Teaching essentials
There is a growing concensus that we can't improve our education system without placing a higher value on our teachers. McKinsey, NCTAF, and countless other education experts are developing proposals for doing just that. To be truly effective, these reforms need to take into account the fragile, ineffable and essential relationship between teachers and students, which is often left out of the education equation.

In his book, The Influence of Teachers, teacher and education journalist John Merrow talked about this relationship, and its power to transform individual lives and society as a whole.

New York Times columnist David Brooks also made this point in a Times commentary: "If I had to summarize the progress we’ve made in education over the last decade, it’s that we’ve moved beyond the illusion that we could restructure our way to a good education system and we’ve finally begun to focus on the core issue: the nature of the relationship between the teacher and the student. People learn from people they love. Anything that enriches the space between a student and a teacher is good. Anything that makes it more frigid is bad...Rigorous instruction has to flow on threads of trust and affection."


Connie Matthiessen is an associate editor at GreatSchools.

Comments from readers

"Schools have really become totalitarian according to everyone responding to this article. Principals are not supporting their teachers and teachers are not supporting their principals! I find it interesting that in another article that I read that teachers are bullying their students as well and the principals are ignoring it! I find that appauling! I, as a teacher, parent, and grandparent, would be the first one in line to report the teacher who is abusing a child in a classroom! Just try me. I am so tired of teachers and administrators thinking they are holier than though and that they can get away with abusing a chid. Not with me around! "
"Here we have yet another study that points to an ever increasing awareness - that the BEST teachers for children are their PARENTS the study notes, "People learn from people they love." No surprise that more children are being home schooled every year. "
"this is so true.......teachers are always getting dropped...... it is so stupid "
"Wow, not paid at all to help your children at home?!! No disrespect intended, but you are your childs best hope and will always be the most infuential person in their educational experience. "
"Singapore is great at teaching math so borrow that method for math only - for inventiveness keep the arts and bring back woodshop and metal shop - do not teach by rote except in black and white subjects like math - and make kids think and write their own papers -throw out multiple choice tests - throw out tenure and teacher unions - they ought to be illegal - we need people passionate about what they do - the tenure and unions promote the idiots and throw out the good ones - here's a bumper sticker that we need - teacher tenure and unions are immoral unethical and should be illegal - "
"A good title,but only whining inside about underpayed and undervalued teachers. Get real people. Underpayed? Get shortterm contract, as many people do. Do not fit the position, good bye. What about doing some stuff? To teach as expected. We have horrible experience with teachers "
"Underpaid? Unrespected? I don't believe it. A teacher applies for a position, then is hire, based on his or her certifications, SADDLY based on that. Why? Because when they are in the classroom not all of them act with that quality. In the other hand there are GREAT teachers but because they do not have enough SENIORITY are sent out of the classroom where they really belong, and the system keeps those that are there just for the money and the benefits and do not give the children much but a boring time. SO, how can we respect teachers if the same education system tell us the opposite with the attitude? Mmmm "
"You got two legs but education is a three-legged stool! The type of effective learning - for sure - has to engage / involve the teachers and the students. BUT it will not approach optimum without the engagement of the PARENTS! And you won't get optimum student engagement without the parents! "
"I have to disagree with the statement holding Singapore as an example of an excellent education system. Having lived there for five years I can confirm that the style of teaching in the schools equates to learning by rote and is indicative of a style of teaching our parents would be familiar with with very limited scope for creativity. Yes impressive academic results are achieved (driven largely by a strict discipline system and a fear of failure) but all to often the graduates from the local school system lack the leadership skills to truly be successful in business. Too often I saw weekends for Singaporeans consist of driving their children from one intensive academic tutorial to another followed by further music lessons etc. Too many of my Sinaporean friends who are parents recount the pressure they feel they have to put their children under to keep up academically and how they are so stretched at the weekend with all the other tutorials they have to take the children to ! that they resort to eating in the car as they rush from place to place. The worry also about the stress their children are under at a very young age. A balance is very important. The US system is too imbalanced in the opposite direction and needs more focus on the core academic discipliens of the three Rs. When one looks at the success of an education system my point is that its not enough to just look at the academic achievement levels - look at what people have achieved in their working lives as a better indication of a successful education. Where are the top business leaders from? "
"I gaurantee this: Class size is just as important as teacher quality from at least k-2. I don't care how good that teacher is, she will not reach 38 kindergarteners with no assistan. This happens in some areas (South Side) in district 299. "
"I do not disagree with your point of view. I taught in the public schools for 33 years and know that I was a good teacher. But my school does not appreciate teachers that are challenging for students. That is true for many other schools too. That is one reason so many teachers take early retirement. And schools have become totalitarian. The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch is a clear portrayal of what has happened in our schools since "A Nation at Risk" came out in 1983. MY administrators told me kids need to know nothing since everything is on line these days. They cannot tell me the purpose of a school. "
"Interesting and there are several research studies that support the notion that the teacher is the critical variable in student success. This short article, however, is too simplistic, identifies cultures and societies that are dramatically different than American culture and society indicating a cause/effect relationship of selective, rigorous teacher prep, salary and professional prestige when those may not be the relevant ones for the examples given. In the end though, regardless of the flawed logic set out in this article, making the process of entering the profession more difficult, paying teachers more to attract talent and taking steps to elevate the status of the profession may be helpful. "
"Parents and students can team up to help make a good teacher a great teacher. Provide and use a consistent place to do homework. Talk to your child about the homework, at once encouraging and critical, and provide feedback to the teacher in a constructively critical manner. Be as candid about your child's needs as you are with strengths, and don't be afraid to make suggestions, and offer help. Finally, good schools generally have strong parent support, financial and otherwise. Helping schools to provide after school, weekend, and early bird services with an active parents association is particularly crucial in these difficult economic times. All of the above may be part of helping to create a significant relationship between your child and his teacher. Not all teachers are immediately so effective, and there is no teacher who can be that special one for all kids, all the time. So bring that mature sense of what is possible to your discussions about school with your children. And of course, you should contact the school about any concerns you have, after some extended conversation and research, about any negative reports your child brings to you about his teacher. "
"This was an inspiring article - I am a volunteer teacher - In looking for ideas and resources in enhance my students' experience I forgot the most important - thanks. "
"Some other issues teachers face include A. dealing with a hostile or political administration and B. parents that are either apathetic or overbearing. "
"How exactly are teachers underpaid when they receive summers off and all holidays too. What a myth! "
"you are absolutely right in saying that the quality of your childs education depends on the teacher, BUT we as parents/grandparents are tired of hearing how teachers are overworked and underpaid (they knew, basically, what teachers were paid BEFORE/WHEN they decided to go into the profession.) No disrespect intended....but parents are not paid AT ALL at all to finish the schools work at home. "