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John Merrow

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Lessons for Future Teachers

Posted: 05/12/11 11:26 AM ET

Two weekends ago, I had the honor of being the commencement speaker at the University of Michigan's School of Education. With an audience of 394 men and women who had earned their degrees and their families and friends, I focused on the opportunities -- not the challenges -- facing them. Here's an excerpt.

"For all the attacks on teachers and the bad news from Wisconsin, New Jersey, Florida, Ohio and elsewhere, something wonderful is happening here. Teaching is now front and center in the education reform debate. It used to be testing, but now it's teaching. Everyone from the President to Bill Gates acknowledges that teachers matter.

Time was, there was no national dialogue because school was not about teaching, not even for teachers. Teaching was just what some people did to make a living. Today, it's much more than that.

It's a hard time to be a teacher. But I also think there's never been a better time to become a teacher.

I want to convince you that teachers could be -- should be -- in the catbird seat. The bottom line for school these days is that "Teachers rule!" Almost nobody thinks they can overhaul education anymore with sweeping programs, standardized "teacher proof" curricula, or better tests.

What's more, you teachers are an army.

One out of every 100 Americans is a public school teacher. It's actually slightly more than that: 3.2 million teachers, 309 million Americans.

And you are a young army.

In 1987 the mode for 'years of experience' was 15 years. That's right: there were more teachers in their 15th year than any other year.

The latest mode -- believe it or not -- was one year! In 2007, our schools had more first-year teachers than any other kind!

The profession will continue to be young, because a huge cohort of 60-year-olds is about to retire.

And it's your youth that gives me the greatest hope, because you are digital natives. You know the power of technology, and you will use its power to create learning opportunities. You won't let schools remain 'answer factories' but will help your students formulate questions, help them dig deeper and deeper. You will fan the flames of their curiosity, instead of trying to make students fit into neat boxes.

But you have to stick together. Be an army. Elevate the profession -- so you can be proud of the uniform you wear: teacher!

You have to insist that what matters is not how late you can get there in the morning, how early you can leave in the afternoon, or how much warning the principal has to give you before she can come in and watch you teach.

That's trade union stuff.

You have to organize to demand a role in selecting and designing curriculum. You need opportunities to watch each other teach, to collaborate, and you want your evaluations of your students to count at least as much as the score on some bubble test.

Make this happen, and you will have brilliant, satisfying careers.

Let me make a couple of predictions about the career you are embarking upon:

1. Your first situation will probably be 'sink or swim' because most administrators don't seem to know how to develop human capital. Don't let that happen. Reach out to some veteran teachers even before school starts and ask if you can come to them for advice. Then do it.

2. In the not too distant future, your salary will be, in part, determined by how well your students do academically. This will happen sooner rather than later. The old way of paying teachers based on years on the job and number of graduate credits is on its way out, as it should be.

3. I predict that, if your principal is wise, you will play a part in choosing your colleagues.

4. If we are wise, tests will get better, and your evaluations of your students will count.

However, if these and other changes do not occur, 40 percent of you will leave the profession, the way 40 percent now leave in their first five years. That would be a tragedy, because the profession needs men and women like you, people with skills, integrity, good training and a desire to make a difference. Teachers whose mantra is 'If my students are not learning, then i am not teaching -- and I need to do something different."

Let me close by asking a favor of you. All of you, please close your eyes.

With your eyes closed, picture in your mind's eye the teacher who meant the most to you.

I know each one of you is being transported back into time, now matter your age, into a classroom with a wonderful teacher.

(I can still see Mr. Sullivan, my high school English teacher, standing in front of us, demanding that we support our argument with examples from the play, or the book, or the poem.)

Now open your eyes, and look at these new graduates. Because in the years to come, when someone like me asks an audience to close their eyes and think of the teacher who changed their lives, that audience will see these young men and women.

Congratulations. Go get 'em!"

 

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