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Teachers Keep the Lights of Learning Shining

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I recently posed a question to our members--why do you teach? This seemingly simple question prompted a flood of impassioned, inspiring responses. Teachers' responses echo the literally thousands of conversations I have had with our members about their jobs, about their dedication to the students they teach and to the larger community, and about why they commit their lives to this important work.

When teachers talk about their profession, one thing that becomes clear immediately is how much they care about their students. These educators come to the classroom with a nearly limitless supply of optimism about the transformative capacity of education and a deep commitment to preparing our children for the future.

In describing why she is in the profession, a history teacher in Chicago explained it this way: "I teach for many reasons. I want to help students to love and appreciate history as much as I do. I want to help them learn to solve problems instead of blame others for what happens in their lives. I also teach for selfish reasons. There is no better 'high' than to touch a young person's heart. To realize that I let a young person know that they are important to me and that I love them, and to see their response, is something I wish everyone in the world could experience."

In a speech at the National Press Club in Washington on Jan. 12, I will talk in detail about creating a new path forward that nurtures and builds on this level of caring over the course of a career in the classroom, and that develops and supports great teachers and great teaching for all of America's public school students.

I want all teachers to feel like the California educator who wrote to tell me: "I teach because I make a difference, it's challenging, and it's fun. I love what I do. I teach because of my students--like my student who went from failing in middle school to being the first in his family to go to college." Teachers who feel that way about their profession and the schools where they practice will be the leaders of innovations that will take us from the schools that served the industrial economy of the last century to the institutions that will prepare students for the information-based economy of the 21st century.

Teachers understand deep down that their students are learning more than academic subjects. "I don't just teach my students the importance of leading an active and healthy life," said a middle school physical education teacher from Illinois. "I also teach them the importance of fair play, being kind to others, working together as a team to reach a common goal, and the importance of taking responsibility for their own actions." Others have struck similar themes in their comments about this profession that some describe as a "calling" rather than a job. "I teach because I love helping students succeed," a California teacher said. A social studies teacher in Florida said he teaches "because I want to help students understand their world and how to have an impact as young citizens. Our history, geography and government are topics that are often neglected, but they are still essential for students to function when they graduate and enter society at large."

A California teacher described the fulfillment that is one of teaching's great rewards: "I teach because I love to see my students light up when they learn something new." I never forget those times in my own teaching career at Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., when I saw and heard my 11th- and 12th-grade social studies students reach those "aha" moments. But we need more than the continuing commitment of individual teachers to keep those lights shining. We need the commitment of the broader community, and we need to recognize that we have a systems problem that must be reformed. In my speech Jan. 12, I will discuss some of the forms that commitment must take.

We need new approaches to ensure that our children have the best possible teachers and that those teachers have the support they need throughout their professional careers. Teachers are preparing students for a new world--one that requires that we break out of the old industrial model and create new educational models.

Again, teachers in the classrooms across the country understand this. "Schools are not factories that produce little robots--we can do so much better than that!" said a Minnesota teacher. This is a shift that embraces and adapts to new realities. As a teacher in Connecticut said, "I recognize that the world is a changing tapestry, that we must change with it and offer our students the skills to be part of a global environment that is technology- and information-based, no longer just [based on] agriculture, industry and manufacturing."

Take a look at this video:

As it shows, times have changed and our education system must also change to help our children thrive in today's world.

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