Teachers Matter: What I Learned at UNESCO's World Teachers' Day in Paris

In a photo from Sept. 14, 2012, Kristine Nannini passes out student data sheets she created to her fifth grade class at McGra
In a photo from Sept. 14, 2012, Kristine Nannini passes out student data sheets she created to her fifth grade class at McGrath Elementary in Grand Blanc, Mich. Nannini spent her summer creating her own charts and student data sheets. It was something she imagined other teachers across the nation would want. So she decided to cash in on her prep time and sell her materials on teacherspayteachers.com. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Teachers matter.

Everyone understands this on some personal level; we call all point to at least one important teacher who made an outsized impact on our lives. Earlier this month I traveled to Paris for the World Teachers' Day event hosted at UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), and learned about how teachers matter enormously on a global level.

On October 5, 2012, approximately 400 educators and leaders gathered in a large assembly room with all of the UN trimmings: microphones on every surface for attendees, a huge dais with eleven seats, headphones with controls for instant translation to French or English, and about 200 flagpoles just outside the window. I had the privilege to represent National Board Certified Teachers in the U.S., accompanying Ron Thorpe, CEO of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

The idea that teachers matter on a global scale is receiving urgent attention at the highest levels. At last month's United Nations general assembly in New York and on the Huffington Post, Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon announced the five-year "Education First" initiative, adding special weight to the World Teachers' Day discussion.

The three goals of "Education First" are to put every child in school, to improve the quality of learning, and to foster global citizenship. With 61 million school age children currently out of school this means that we need 6.8 million new teachers by 2015, with over half of the need in sub-Saharan Africa.


This crisis in the developing world shaped the program the World Teachers' Day program, which used the slogan "take a stand for teachers." As a National Board Certified Teacher from Washington, D.C., it was fascinating for me to put a global lens on my own understanding of the teaching profession. Here are some of my bite-sized takeaways.

  • In developing countries, the fundamental challenges are staggering. In Guinea, they are working to make sure that teachers are not homeless. They are also combing the sketchy civil service rolls to find out who in the country is actually teaching class and who is just taking money but not really teaching. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the ministry is working to reduce three-month delays in paying teachers. Both countries are also trying out incentives to entice teachers to work in remote areas.
  • In the Central African Republic, class sizes average over 80 students.
  • In South Africa, some teachers still have over 70 Students per class. Working conditions vary enormously based on location. They are making a concerted effort to bring back retired teachers to help as expert voices. The country lacks infrastructure needed for the technology they want to bring into education.
  • In the Democratic Republic of Congo, they have "harmonized" three different teacher wage brackets into one. They have ended three month delay for teacher pay and are starting an e-learning program for remote areas.
  • According to Winsome Gordon, CEO of the Jamaica Teaching Council, Cuba is way ahead in leveraging technology for teacher development and resource sharing among educators.
  • All top-performing OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) nations (Finland, Korea, Japan, Canada, Australia...) have strong teachers' unions.
  • Cambridge professor John Bangs: Collaborative leadership in schools- not principal going it alone- yields more sustainable improvement.
  • Bangs also emphasized the necessity of self-efficacy in teachers. He quoted Covey: "Motivation is a fire from within. If someone else tries to light that fire under you, chances are it will burn very briefly."
  • David Edwards of Education International said one unnamed (but guessable) European nation is facing a possible 30 percent austerity cut to education budgets
  • Ron Thorpe: I have never seen such happy, self-reliant children as I did in Finland.
  • Sep 5 to Oct 5 is Teachers' Month in the Philippines and they are serious about it!
  • French researcher Luc Ria: Strong early career teachers balance academic requirements with benevolence. He says that respect for human nature structures their work. Authority is understood not as force, but benevolence.

Indeed, for many developing countries the basic challenges to running an education system (lack of school buildings and teaching resources, lack of teachers, teacher absenteeism, low pay for educators, bureaucratic breakdowns) are enormous. However, despite the obstacles and deficits impacting the teaching profession worldwide, there was also substantive optimism in the room.

In the U.S., we will need approximately 2 million new teachers in the next decade to fill jobs left open by attrition or retirements. We need those new teachers to be strong educators, who, as Luc Ria pointed out, can consistently blend academic requirements with benevolence towards students. This is an opportunity to infuse the teaching profession with new talent.

In his speech to the World Teachers' Day assembly, Ron Thorpe drive this point home:

"[W]e must remember that the quality of any enterprise simply cannot exceed the quality of the people in it. That applies to a school. It also applies to a profession. With that in mind, we must do everything we can to ensure for ourselves and the public that once teachers are beyond the novice phase of their career, their quality is dependably consistent at the accomplished level. If we don't set and maintain those standards, the public will have no reason to respect us. More important, if we don't do this, someone else will, ensuring that we never will achieve full professional status."

Indeed. teachers come to the profession wanting to work with students and make a difference, but they can't be successful, accomplished professionals without a village to nurture their development.

We know how to coach teachers to excellence; we have a recipe that works. The teaching standards laid out by the National Board are a rock-solid road map for building expert practitioners in first-world nations and can provide crucial guidance to developing countries as they seek to surmount some fundamental challenges.

As the international consensus suggests, we must put all the resources we can into investing in the village it takes to raise quality teachers. This means working to elevate the status of the teaching profession in society, to emphasize and support teacher quality and improvement throughout the professional continuum, and to commit to funding advanced research on the teaching profession.

World Teachers' Day came and went on October 5, but the broad effort to increase the quality and access of education to all learners worldwide will require dedicated foot soldiers to step in to the frontlines-- the world's classrooms-- for years to come.