Thank You for Teaching

I remember my kindergarten teacher, Madame Liliane. I remember her fondly, with the emotion we attach to good childhood memories. I remember her as a towering figure who seemed to have all the years in the world. I remember her as the embodiment of all memory of humankind as she mesmerized the small group of four and five year olds in the Ecole Jean Jacques Rousseau, a small school in Venezuela, with her stories about life in France, the country she and most other teachers in that school came from. I remember her creating an array of ways for those students to learn, from one another, with each other. She taught us the basics of literacy, read us stories, played with us with plasticine clay. I remember her comforting children who cried, having a hard time saying good bye to their parents as they dropped them off in school. I remember her engaging us in conversations about fairness, about taking turns and sharing, helping us begin to see the world through the eyes of others. I remember also that we could always come back to Madame Liliane. Each day, there was always a different couple of students in the upper grades who came to visit her during school recess, to talk to her as she sat in a folding chair, under the big mango tree that provided cover from the tropical sun in Caracas, as she looked over us as we played and ran around that section of the courtyard reserved for the kindergartners. In time, as a first and second grader, I too would occasionally invite a classmate as we went out to recess 'let's visit Madame Liliane today'. Her presence reminded us of the good times on which much of our love for learning was grounded, and her interest in our new learnings pointed out for us the pathways that linked new knowledge and curiosity about new questions to things learned in the past.

It was those memories, and the recognition of how much I had learned from Madame Liliane, that would cause me decades later to begin the acknowledgements of my doctoral dissertation at Harvard in this way: 'To all my teachers, from Madame Liliane who taught me to read and write, to my doctoral advisor, Russell Davis, who taught me about educational planning'. I suppose it was because those good experiences with teachers that I pursued education as a profession, married a teacher, and continue, five decades after I last saw Madame Liliane, to work with teachers. As my two sons, now in college, journeyed from kindergarten to high school in public schools, I had many opportunities to appreciate the good work of their teachers and the power of effective professional practice, anchored in expert knowledge.

These personal experiences lead me to value Teacher Appreciation Week, a celebration in the United States resulting from the efforts of Eleanor Roosevelt in 1953 to honor teachers, and subsequently of the National Parent Teacher Association in 1985 to turn National Teacher Day into a Week. It is fitting that it was Eleanor Roosevelt who stewarded this movement for teacher recognition, as she had some years earliter stewarded the inclusion of education as a universal human right in the declaration which was adopted by the United Nations to advance world peace.

Opportunities to recognize good teachers are important, whether they are local, at the community, state or national level, as exist in many countries of the world, or Global, as the initiative of the Varkey Education Foundation with the Global Teacher Prize. Teachers are, after all, the stewards of the global movement to educate all children that the inclusion of education in the declaration of human rights initiated. It is because of their work that humanity has experienced a dramatic transformation over the last seven decades in schooling most children.

But recognition of the good work and expertise of teachers should go beyond acknowledging them and thanking them, important as that is. It should cause us to examine what are the conditions in which teachers work. To ask in what ways those conditions support them to do their best work. These conditions include certainly the esteem in which they are held in their communities and in their societies and how they are compensated, but they should also include how much voice they have to define their practice, and especially how many opportunities do they have to develop their skills, before they teach, and throughout their careers. Those critical conditions are the result not just of what teachers do, but of what the rest of us do, or fail to do.

With a group of colleagues in Massachusetts, I have just published a small book discussing what we learned together studying the efforts of Singapore, a nation that has made great strides in supporting the teaching profession as a way to empower all their students with the competencies they will need to thrive in the 21st century. We have titled this book 'Fifteen Letters on Education in Singapore', inspired by the 'Letters on Silesia' which John Quincy Adams wrote with his observations of the early education system in that nation. In that book we offer some lessons we think others could learn from Singapore about how to build a twenty first century teaching profession. Our hope is that the conversations about what these lessons mean for other countries will include, especially, the voices of teachers.

Fifty years later, I still remember Madame Liliane and all the good things I learned with her. My love for learning, and for teaching, is deeply rooted in the memories of that year in kindergarten. I hope all children can have experiences that become, in time, equally beautiful and powerful memories. For this reason, I hope to contribute to creating conditions that empower teachers to be very competent professionals, so they can empower their students to become architects of their own lives and contributing members of their communities. In creating those conditions, each of us has an important role to play, beginning with, but extending beyond, recognizing good teaching and good teachers.