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Teaching at 30,000 Feet


Sandy Merz

Teaching is a unique profession. The public knows it and respects us, and you don't need a survey to confirm that respect. Just make a new friend, maybe on an airplane. It usually goes like this for me:

"I'm a teacher."

"Really? That's such important work. You all do so much. What grade?"

"Eighth."

"Oh my. Wow. What a tough group. I could barely handle my own kids at that age. I
don't know how you do it but thank you."

Chances are we'll discuss issues in education. She'll have strong opinions—informed and uninformed, compelling and mundane—about what's wrong with education. She'll also offer remedies.

We may talk about her job. Maybe she's an engineer, lawyer, doctor, or artist. I'll ask about her specialty and projects, and how long she's been in her field. Most likely, she has a singular and highly specialized skill set that takes years to master.

Our conversation illustrates two branches of the public's perception of teachers: 1) How they view what we do, and 2) How they view our role in education policy debates.

Most everyone recognizes that teaching is vital work that demands a special kind of endurance and caring, often against long odds in trying circumstances. Yet I rarely meet non-teachers who think that the job is very complicated.

Lamentably, many in the public don't recognize teachers as a voice for education policy.

We can and should seek to change these perceptions.

We should be ready with examples that leave no doubt about the panorama of complex skills that accomplished teachers take a career to master.

We should embrace the narrative to show that we are the go-to experts on issues related to education.

Imagine another flight and another new friend. He starts:

"What do you do?"


"Take a guess. I solve practical problems while working within inflexible constraints of time, materials, and budget."

"You're an engineer!"

"Try again. I study, follow, and enforce myriad laws, regulations, and policies, few of which I had input into developing."

"A lawyer?"

"Nope. I observe symptoms and offer options to improve one's well-being."

"I've got it! You're a doctor!"

"Sorry. From diverse media I create original works that challenge our thinking."

"Hmmm, if you're not an artist, I give up. Who does all that?

"Only a teacher."

As the flight continues, I explain the Chicago strike, education in Finland, the "flipped" classroom, and the presidential candidates' stands on education.

We say goodbye in the baggage claim, and I hear him ask his waiting companion, "Did you ever think about how much teachers have in common with engineers?"

A perception has changed.

Are you ready for your next flight?

August (Sandy) Merz III, a National Board-certified teacher, teaches engineering and algebra and sponsors MESA at Safford K-8 International Baccalaureate Candidate School in Tucson, Ariz.

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