The single greatest school-based factor in a child’s academic progress is the teacher standing at the front of the classroom. And yet, for the most part, we’ve expected teachers to become great in isolation – self-correcting in their individual classrooms as they make their way to excellence.
And we’ve expected this without building the structures and supports needed to make teaching rewarding, sustainable and celebrated. This has been particularly acute for teachers in low-income areas, whose students often face significant additional challenges that our schools simply aren’t set up to accommodate.
And so we see the gap between the equal public education promised and the realities of our public schools grow wider and deeper – with an increasingly vitriolic, polarizing debate now squarely in the middle.
For equal educational opportunity to have a shot, we must help teachers bear this load. Despite the many challenges, across our state we see countless signs of hope and innovation, along with a growing commitment to understanding both what constitutes teaching excellence and how it’s made.
In Halifax County, math teachers at Southeast Halifax High School increased the pass rate on the state’s Algebra End-Of-Course exam to 84 percent in 2011 – up from just 6 percent the year before. At Northampton High School in Gaston, teachers determined to get their kids both to and through college came together to establish a summer program to prepare kids for AP coursework – a key predictor of college readiness (historically, AP enrollment at Northhampton has hovered around 1 percent). And at Warren New Tech High School in Warren County, English teachers are leading their students to multiple years of reading growth in a single school year.
In these examples, we can begin to envision the future we seek. Now, with new pledges to increase teacher pay, we must commit to tackling this one together – to stand behind the men and women doing some of the most critical, most difficult work we could ask of them and think ambitiously about how to get them the training, coaching and support they want and our children need.
This will require doing more to attract and retain a diverse, stable, qualified teaching force reflective of the students in our classrooms. It will mean increasing base pay and implementing meaningful incentives to keep the teachers we simply can’t afford to lose. And it will depend on instituting high-quality, research-based training and development opportunities that allow teachers to stretch their own minds as they develop those of our children.
Great teaching is both a national treasure and a renewable resource. Together, we can work to ensure that the efforts of one great teacher amplify those of the next.
Robyn Fehrman is the executive director of Teach For America in Eastern North Carolina, a nonprofit organization that recruit, trains and supports teachers for high-need public schools.