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Creating a New Tone for Learning

I'm disheartened that so many media pundits and political figures tend to lay blame on educators for our current budget shortfalls.

In their eyes, it's the fat-cat teachers who got us into this situation. These overpaid teachers with their three-month vacations who get health benefits and a retirement system are simply unacceptable. Let's resolve our economic woes, they insist, by lowering teacher salaries (and other workers in the social services), firing librarians, cutting the arts, and creating better teacher evaluation based solely on student test scores.

How did teachers become the scapegoats? I don't recall many teachers who were making money by approving bad loans, or who worked on Wall Street manipulating the financial system for millions in personal gain. I'm appalled that teachers are maligned this way. I hear too much teacher blame in too many places. This is a time when we need our leaders -- teacher leaders, that is -- to speak up.

I only have to walk down the hall in my school to see how teacher leadership makes the difference. Mrs. Medlock shows up at 6:45 each morning, teaches well all day, and leaves at six each night. Parents are clamoring for their children to be in her classroom. She is in her 60s and getting her master's degree because there is so much more to learn. She mentors teachers and shares her new knowledge at faculty meetings.

Ms. Farr, our ELL teacher, puts sparks in our students' eyes with her plays, her 101% attitude, and her photos of children in college shirts. Ms. Mara rejoices every day when one of her students discovers a new insight. She mentors, advocates, and is the soul of our school.

My work with teachers is not unusual. You can all list remarkable teachers, be they novices or those closer to ending their 12-hour-a-day careers. In many cases, you are the remarkable teacher.

I call out to those teachers: We need your voices. You have the skills, the passion, and the influence to change the political debate into a dialogue that does not demonize. We need you to create an environment for learning at a national level and beyond. Bring your leadership skills to the forefront.

Just ask basic questions, as you would with your students. Ask the CEO of a bank or corporation that accepted bailout money, or the politician clamoring for big cuts in social services, or the editorial writer at your local newspaper.


  • How many children have you ever taught to read?

  • How many teachers do you talk to every day who are striving to find the best way to reach their hardest-to-teach students?

  • How many children have turned to you as someone safe during a crisis in their lives?

  • How many children did you guide with a hands-on activity that demonstrated the concept of the amount of moisture different soils hold?

  • How many teachers thanked you for helping them engage their students on a daily basis?

Like any good teacher, when the folks you talk to don't have good answers, you have a responsibility to teach them. Explain how they can do better. Show your high expectations, and teach them to share your high expectations. That's what leaders have to do.

Mark Diaz
President, Learning Forward

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