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 nalysis 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 consensus 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.”