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Teaching: A Work of Heart?

Alison Crowley

"Teaching is a work of heart." That's what the small wooden heart says. Given to me by a student during my first year of teaching, this message was originally perched in the corner of a chalkboard. Now, 12 years later it is displayed next to a high-tech SmartBoard.

Many aspects of education have changed over the past decade, but one thing has not: Teachers are not seen by the public as professionals. Much as I appreciate my student's gift, maybe it is messages like the one that is displayed in my classroom that have brought us here.

Do good teachers care about kids? Absolutely. However, equally important components of good teaching are often overlooked: skill, content knowledge, dedication, and experience.

Why do we have such a difficult time seeing teachers as experts, especially when many people agree that teachers have one of the most important jobs in our society?

You've seen teachers change lives in movies such as "Freedom Writers" and "Stand and Deliver." Those teachers sacrificed money, time, and/or personal relationships to become missionaries, true superheroes of public education. If that is what it takes to be a "professional," then we have a problem.

On the flip side, we hear plenty of messages about ineffective teachers. Everyone has a story about that teacher who steered them in the wrong direction and hindered their learning.

A colleague of mine describes the polarity this way—teachers are seen as "amazing and struggling" or "comfortable and corrupt." I have worked with many teachers at several schools, and I don't know one who fits either description perfectly.

But I do know many teachers who work tirelessly to be the best teacher they can be.

I am a better teacher now than I was my first year of teaching. Hint: It's not because my heart has gotten bigger. It's because I've developed my expertise over time—collaborating with colleagues, attending conferences, observing other teachers, reflecting on my practice and working with students who challenge me.

Maybe you've seen the 1967 film "To Sir with Love"—I must admit I get weepy whenever I watch "Lulu" serenade Sidney Poitier's character at his retirement party.

In the novel on which the film is based, E.R. Braithwaite sums up the work of teaching: "We encourage [students] to speak up for themselves, no matter what the circumstances or the occasion; this may probably take the form of rudeness at first but gradually, through the influences of the various committees and the student council, we hope they will learn directness without rudeness, and humility without sycophancy. We try to show them a real relationship between themselves and their work, in preparation for the day when they leave school."

Nearly a half-century later, we call this "college and career readiness." And this kind of work requires much more than "heart."

I look forward to the day when the public sees teachers as who we truly are: a well-educated, hard-working team of experts. Professionals worthy of respect.

Ali Crowley is a National Board-certified teacher in Lexington, Ky., where she teaches Algebra 2 and AP Calculus.

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