11/05/2010 07:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Does Teaching Have a Branding Problem?

I think here in the United States, it does. Many interesting conversations about teaching are going on all across our nation right now. Some say that becoming a teacher is the highest form of community service. This could be true. But it's a whole lot more. Teaching is a profession -- an extremely difficult one. It is one of the most important jobs one can have. And its a job that deserves to be valued, appreciated and honored. In order to achieve more prestige and value for the teaching profession as a whole we need to start talking about teaching, and teachers, in a different way.

Before I made documentaries like Waiting for 'Superman', I made commercials. And occasionally I still do. Advertising agencies are often charged with boiling down the essence of a message to 30 seconds, or less, which can be a difficult challenge. What is the essential message and what is the best way to communicate it? When you translate that to the issue of education, no matter who you talk to, the single most important factor in education is great teaching. This is the central message of what makes a great school.

Of course there are many other factors as well, but let's stick with the most essential ingredient: a great teacher. Top performing countries recruit their teachers from the top one-third of college graduates. In these same countries (Singapore, South Korea, Finland, for example), teaching is both prestigious and well-respected. And it is something else, it's a top profession. Now that probably sounds strange. "Of course it's a profession," you say. But over the last three years, I've found that people tend to talk about teaching as if it's "just" a job where you give of yourself and serve kids and the community as a whole. While this is true, it leaves out some important details. Teaching is one of the most challenging careers out there. It is a profession where people study and train for the task, engage, or should engage in, ongoing professional development, and update their teaching methods and skills to meet the current needs of our youth. It is a job where good teachers should be cultivated, supported and rewarded as the professionals they are. We must look at a teacher as professional first, a professional who just happens to educate kids who just happens to be the future of our country.

Teaching could be a top professional choice here in the United States. We have a prestige deficit when it comes to the idea of teaching and we need to turn this on its head. And fast. One of the most important jobs needs to be valued and regarded as an esteemed profession along the same lines as a doctor, a lawyer, a scientist. We need to better support the great teachers that are already out there, while at the same time recruiting a whole new generation of talented teachers from top graduates. We also need to offer teachers a career path that includes the opportunity to earn more than they do now. And here is a shocking statistic: 50 percent of the current teaching core is eligible for retirement over the next 10 years. By 2014, the United States Department of Education projects that our nation's schools will need to hire as many as one million new teachers.

Organizations like Teach for America are starting to make teaching competitive among college graduates, helping to brand teaching as a distinguished career choice. But this is only one path. There need to be many, many others.

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