$1 Million Global Teacher Prize Winner is Dead Wrong

$1 Million Global Teacher Prize Winner is Dead Wrong
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Nancie Atwell, a teacher from Southport, Maine, U.S., center, poses with former President of the United States Bill Clinton, left, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, prime minister of the U.A.E. and Ruler of Dubai, after she won the $1 million Global Teacher Prize in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Sunday, March 15, 2015. Atwell has been teaching since 1973 and founded the Center for Teaching and Learning in Southport. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

RCEd Commentary

If we want public education to continue and improve, we must encourage and nurture a future teaching workforce. Or so you’d think.

America is going to hire more than 2 million new teachers in the next decade, and that likely includes my young son and daughter’s future teachers. We’re counting on our future teachers to be well prepared and committed. I assumed that supporting the effort to encourage and cultivate skilled educators was a given, especially across the educator community.

I was wrong.

Global Teacher Prize winner Nancie Atwell is an exceptional educator. She founded and leads an excellent independent demonstration school, the Center for Teaching & Learning in Edgecomb, Maine, serving 75 students in K-8. As part of my education at Teachers College, Columbia University, I read -- and loved -- her literacy text “In the Middle”, a classic in the field for teaching reading and writing. Her honor earlier this month of being selected to receive the first Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize, the “Nobel Prize for teaching” and a $1 million award -- which she’s donating to her school -- is a triumph for our country.

So my jaw hit the floor hit when I saw this exchange during her interview on CNN. She was asked: “What do you say to kids out there who are trying to figure out what they want to do when they grow up and might be considering teaching?”

Her full response, as it aired:

“Honestly, right now I encourage them to look in the private sector. Because public school teachers are so constrained right now by the Common Core standards and the tests developed for children to monitor what teachers are doing with them.

It’s a movement that has turned teachers into technicians, not reflective practitioners and if you are a creative, smart, young person this is not the time to go into teaching unless an independent school would suit you.”

Wait, what?

The most celebrated educator in the world is discouraging creative, smart young people from considering teaching in the American public school system, which serves 50 million children. That’s shocking. To support that position to its logical end, in which creative, smart young people steer away from teaching in public schools, is to surrender the future of the public education.

These are very tough times for teachers, but given our national mission of equity and excellence, times have always been tough. Teaching is America’s most embattled profession, as Dana Goldstein makes clear in her indispensable 2014 book “The Teacher Wars.” Since Horace Mann first set up shop in the 19th Century, teachers in America have been buffeted with overwhelming workloads, substandard facilities, out-of-touch governance, low pay, whiplash-inducing policy shifts, inconsistent preparation, and chronic demeaning.

And yet each school day, over 3 million men and women go to work, accepting their responsibility to teach children the best they can. Despite the challenges, there are many paths today for creative, smart young people to make a difference through teaching. A new generation of teachers also holds some unprecedented advantages:

-- The Internet offers incalculable troves of free resources and networks for collaboration, support, and growth.

-- Teacher residencies, emphasizing clinical experience, are beginning to break through as a compelling model to prepare teachers to succeed and persist.

-- The nascent teacher leadership movement is creating and institutionalizing career lattices to keep educators engaged and fulfilled throughout their professional trajectories.

-- Social media and crowd-funding allow teachers to reach worldwide partners to share and support their innovative ideas.

The teaching profession is not all roses and sunshine, but let’s create a more perfect union, not stand back and declare failure. Kids need models, not martyrs in their classrooms.

It’s a hard and necessary effort to elevate the teaching profession -- improving every stage of a coherent continuum from aspiring educator to accomplished practitioner. Encouraging a brain drain from the public education system -- no matter how frustrating the current moment may feel -- moves this effort in the wrong direction, at great expense to us all.

I hope that, given her global platform, Nancie Atwell and other adults reconsiders their messages to young people. We can be critical of the implementation or wisdom of specific policies; what we can’t do is abandon ship.

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