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An Opening Day Message for Teachers and Leaders

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HONGQI ZHANG 123rf jpg.jpg

Television channels in our region of the country run many commercials featuring teachers. One about charter schools is compelling. One by the NEA is uplifting. Some about STEM programs are encouraging. There is, however, one in particular that annoys us. It features a harried looking female teacher standing in her elementary classroom. Of course, it correctly represents the gender of the majority of teachers of young children. Also in this commercial are a dozen or so children, energized and active.  Of course, it correctly represents students as racially diverse. You might like them to be participating in a rich learning environment. But, no...these children are engaged in off task, scattered chaos. They are throwing things at each other, hitting each other, one is actually sitting in a fish tank. When one finally grabs the teacher's cell phone, you discover she is thinking about her upcoming vacation. She is hoping to escape this horrible working environment and land on a beach where she can get a massage.

This is the image some marketing professional and the business they represent chose to portray about a teaching professional and about education. It is appalling. Where does this come from and why isn't there some outcry from somebody about how inaccurate and offensive it is? Is this a believable image to the general public? In a not so subtle way, it encourages those who feel public schools are failing and the failure is the fault of teachers who are overpaid and who under perform. No parent would want their child in the classroom of this 31 second ad. No educator can feel respect when they observe this image of their profession.

Contrast this with a story from a recent national CBS news report. Of course, the news was filled with eclipse stories from the "totality path" and this was one of them. The students who shared a physics class 50 years ago in Maryland used the eclipse as a motivation for a reunion in Wyoming with their former teacher. Now, a highly educated group f professionals themselves, they gathered with their old teacher to acknowledge that he continues to inspire and teach them. In the interview, his pride in those successful adults was palpable. The story captured respect, a lifelong long joy for learning and, yes, it revealed the love one holds for teachers who make a positive difference in our lives. At the end of the story, the reporter asked the now elder teacher if these were "his kids". He responded "yeah, yeah".

That's the truth very great teacher lives. The students who pass every year through our classroom doors become our kids. They work their way into the fabric of our lives. We remember them, their names, where they sat in our rooms and we have stories about them. Those are the best teachers and we wish each child had one of them every year for every subject. Can a leader make that happen? No, probably not, but a leader can certainly impact the possibility that each child has as many teachers like that as possible.

So why are we writing about this today? Because we know schools are opening and a new year is beginning across the country. Teachers are returning to their classrooms and leaders are thinking about and delivering their orientation day remarks. Most leaders have, themselves, also been teachers. They know that some days can be really hard and they remember the days when they were frustrated. But, they also know the better days, the ones that captured a light in a child's eye or the joy of stellar test marks that made a difference in a college acceptance or a performance that was memorable. They also know that teachers come back each year with hope.

On those orientation days, leaders need to tap into that hopefulness and lift it up.This year when we are on the train or driving the car to school, let's think about one kind of power leaders have... the power to create messages. Don't sink to the place where the first day messages are all about the new regulations or about the latest testing programs. Don't let it be only about a new schedule or reporting process. A message like that can extinguish hopefulness and cause the conversation as teachers walk out to the room to be captured as "more of the same". We can use these days to call out the best among us, to identify the stories of our graduates that not everyone knows...but you do and you know which teachers made the difference. We can also tap into our resources and become inspirational. We each can do that if we try.

We can create the image and give the message of the highest achievement and the vision of each and every classroom. We cannot abdicate to those who see us as the least among us. The leader lifts. The leader offers respect and demands it for teachers who are deserving by the way they live and work. That's the way a year should begin. Not hoping for a longer summer vacation nor looking forward to the next one but ready, willing, and more than able to lift every child, one at a time and one class at a time for a lifetime.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools.  Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

Photo by Hongqi Zhang courtesy of 123rf

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