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Teachers: Make the Switch From Humble Servants to Confident Professionals

Note: Today's blog post is writen by Jeff Charbonneau, the 2013 US National Teacher of the Year in 2013 and finalist for this year's Global Teacher Prize. You can follow him on Twitter at @JeffCharbonneau.

It should be a simple introduction. It is one that I have had to do thousands of times at conferences, meetings, and trainings. It should roll off my tongue...

And yet...it doesn't.

I am supposed to proudly and confidently say, "My name is Jeff Charbonneau, 2013 US National Teacher of the Year and Top 50 Finalist for the 2015 Global Teacher Prize".

But as soon as the words come out, it feels as though I have just broken a professional code — a code that says above all else, teachers are humble servants to their students, parents, administrators, community, and society.

The code has been passed down from teacher to teacher.

It's a code that I know well, and have been trying to abide by. In fact, I was a very reluctant Teacher of the Year candidate. There were always (and always will be) other teachers who I felt were more talented, hardworking, and innovative than I.

Lynn Brant, Kekoa Gabriel, Traci Anderson, Jessica Carter, Ken Johnson, Jason Schoonover — and so many others were and still are better teachers than I am. And those are just in my high school, let alone the several thousands of other teachers I have met who also excel in the craft.

What I have learned, however, is that code — the code of teacher humility — is actually causing a problem.

A big problem.

When a teacher plays down their role, understates their knowledge, undervalues their impact, and declines to discuss the complexities of their craft — it hurts, nearly fatally, the status of the teaching profession.

When a teacher tries to deflect praise, they often suggest phrases such as:

"I love my job, I get to play with kids all day!"

"Your child is the one that deserves the credit!"

How do I know? I have said them —  and said them often trying to down play my work and ensure that I remain the humble teacher.

But at what cost?

The low status of the teaching profession is widely discussed in blogs, research articles, and even political debates. Many will point the portrayal of teachers in the media, the level of teacher pay in various states, and of course the ongoing discussions of teacher accountability and student testing as key factors in the downward trend of the profession's status.

However, as a teacher, I know that I can't control many outside influences — but I can always strive to improve those things within my control.

I believe that teachers have the power to change the perception of the profession; and they can do it on their own.

Seriously.

With more than 3.6 million public education teachers in our country of just over 320 million people, teachers make up more than 1% of the country's population.

Right now, across the USA, schools are starting up for the new academic year. Even if each teacher only talked with 20 or 30 adults during open houses (a reasonable figure for elementary teachers, though higher grade levels could certainly speak with many, many more), imagine the possibilities that teachers have in changing the conversation about the teaching profession.

Instead of simply saying,

"I am so excited to get the chance to work with your child this year!"

Imagine if each teacher started there and THEN said,

"Throughout year I will put to use more than 4 years of undergraduate and graduate schooling, several hundred (if not thousands) of additional hours of professional development training, and my years of experience working directly with an incredibly wide range of student social, emotional, physical and academic abilities to attempt to diagnose your child's optimal learning environment and then match my instructional approach accordingly."

I heard that! I heard you snicker just now....

How do I know?

Because the rule is that "teachers shouldn't sound like that. They should be more (wait for it).... humble."

But isn't that what teachers do? Use their professional training and background to improve learning outcomes for students?

Why can't teachers talk about what they actually do?  

Why is it that all we expect to hear from teachers are the comments about getting to play with kids?

When a teacher says, "I get to play with kids all day", what they really should be saying is: "I will occasionally integrate play as part of the instructional process. When utilized, it will be intentional, purposeful, rooted in thousands, if not millions, of pages of research and data, and it be clearly aligned to the learning targets for the lesson."

The problem is, the code won't let us say that. Instead of sharing any sense of professionalism, we are supposed to down play our role.

So what do parents and the community hear? Teachers get to play all day.

While I understand the intention is to be humble, it sends the wrong message.

And that is a problem.

If we are serious about lifting the status of the teaching profession, then we need to stop self-deprecating and instead start talking like confident professionals.

Believe me, I still know that I am not the best teacher in my high school. Far from it. And that's not being humble. That's just fact.

However, I am a skilled, trained, and professional expert in my field.

This year, parents will entrust me to provide the best education available to their students. I will shoulder that responsibility with confidence; committed to sharing the knowledge I have gained through extensive training and experience to help their student.

Imagine what the status of the profession would be if every teacher in America decided to communicate about their work, not as humble servants, but as a confident professionals.

--Jeff Charbonneau

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