Repeat After Me: We Can't Have Great Schools Without Great Teachers

Every family knows what matters most and wonders why we've forgotten this simple truth. Every teacher on every list for every school needs to be great. And we can't stop until we get there.
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At my house the other night, the suspense was more intense than a thriller. My wife, daughter and I were huddled over a computer in the kitchen. I had control of the mouse, but clearly I wasn't going fast enough scrolling down the list, because my wife snatched it from my hand. Then my daughter shrieked, "Mom!, it's right there! See!!!" There it was, the list of fourth graders and which teacher was assigned to each student -- her little nine year old finger, hunting for her name. She saw it first and starting squealing, then my wife jumping up and down (I've always been the slow reader) But yes, yes!!!! It was there. We got the teacher we wanted. I joined in the celebration high five-ing my daughter, but more importantly my wife because we knew the single most important factor in determining her success this year would be the teacher she sees at the front of the classroom each day.

Regardless of where the school is or what it's called: public, private, charter or magnet, Parents know (even if the rest of the world often forgets) that teachers are what matter most.

When I made my very first documentary in 1999 called The First Year, I followed five teachers through their first year teaching in some of LA's toughest schools. I was with these young teachers all the time. I was there with them on their first day, driving to school where they declared proudly their mission to change kids lives. I was there in the middle of the year, when exhaustion was taking over, and the hard and cold reality of what it takes to be a great teacher was feeling impossible. And I was there seeing the relief of the last day of school and witnessing the bittersweet hugs from kids whom they would miss -- and whose lives they had changed forever.

It was an amazing thing to observe. And what was always apparent is that life of a teacher is really hard work. Really hard. Every day is a performance, but with a new script. There's curricula to follow. Lessons to plan. Discipline problems. There are the fast learners, who might get ahead or might get bored and there's the slower learning kids, who need that extra attention. Or the quiet ones, where you have to assess what's actually going on. And after a really exhausting day, all these teachers wanted to do was collapse in their living rooms. But there are papers to grade and there's preparation for tomorrow when the whole thing starts again.

But what keeps these teachers going every day is the impact they have on kids. Knowing the potential they have. Feeling when it happens. Seeing a kid's face light up. For every teacher I followed, this is why they went to work everyday. They knew then, and know now it's not about the latest debate: The curricula. Or class size. It's not about the reform du jour. It's simple.

It's all about great teachers!

And as first year teachers, the results were often mixed. They knew they had a long way go -- and they weren't getting a lot of help from the outside. And walking down the hallways of each of these five schools you could see it with your eyes. When the teachers were great, the results were great. When the teachers weren't great...well, you know what happened.

So when the conversation about how to fix our school feels too complicated and overwhelming, just think of one thing: we can't have great schools without great teachers. Repeat after me: We can't have great schools without great teachers.

And when you start with that simple truth, the solutions become pretty clear. Let's recruit our best and brightest. Develop the ones we have to become better teachers. Reward the ones who are doing a great job. Recruit and train talented principals. And after trying everything, help find another job for those teachers who aren't cutting it.

When the excitement died down in my house, the phone rang. It was the mother of my daughter's friend from another school calling, and there were tears -- they didn't get the teacher they wanted.

Every family knows what matters most and wonders why we've forgotten this simple truth. Every teacher on every list for every school needs to be great. And we can't stop until we get there.

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