A Cup Full of Gratitude for Teachers and a Challenge

By Dr. Erica Brown

“I’m a teacher. What’s your super power?”

For less than ten dollars you can have this platitude wrapped around a mug to give to your favorite teacher this Chanukah or as an end-of-the-year gift. If you’ve got a pre-school or elementary school teacher to thank, you might go with, “It takes a big heart to shape little minds.” High school teachers who need consoling on harder days, deserve an herbal tea in a mug with a #2 pencil graphic that says, “The influence of a great teacher can never be erased.” Personally, I’d give middle school teachers the coffee cup with this blessing: “May your coffee be strong and your students be calm.”

In truth, a mug is never big enough to fill with our gratitude for the really good teachers who have shaped our lives. We’ve all had our share of bad teachers who may not have deserved a mug for the heartache they gave us. No matter how much money is invested in renovating a gym, improving school lunches, buying the latest math curriculum or hiring a new principal, a school is only as good as your child’s worst teacher. Only uniformly great teaching across an entire school will produce consistently great learning.

Given that, who will we buy these mugs for ten or twenty years from now? This past June, journalist Nick Morrison published an article in Forbes with this alarming title, “Number Of Teachers Quitting The Classroom After Just One Year Hits All-Time High.” He writes, “More teachers are dropping out after their first year than at any time in the last 20 years, while one in three leave after five years, according to figures published today.” There are a lot of obvious reasons for teacher attrition: poor pay, difficult work conditions, lack of resources, belligerent parents. These are real day-to-day stresses. But when we look at the looming teacher crisis in the Jewish world we need to confront a more foundational and obvious problem: we don’t sufficiently value teaching as a profession. When we devalue teaching, the field shrinks.

But there is an upside to this equation. When we value teaching, the field grows. The only way to confront the teacher crisis that is hitting us already and will hit harder still is an all-out concerted effort by establishment and emergent Jewish organizations – and not only schools – to say often and out-loud: Teaching Matters. Value Teachers. Become a Teacher. Our community-wide conversations about education tend to be about fund-raising, affordability and board development. These are critical discussions, but they will never eclipse teacher quality.

It’s time to create national and local education campaigns that invite young people and serious retirees to consider teaching as a career or encore career. It’s time to reach out to professionals in other fields who crave more meaning in their work to think about teaching as a better career. It’s time for Federations and family foundations to create more financial incentives to go into and to stay in teaching, to invest more deeply in professional development and to cover tuition in part or in full for Jewish day school teachers. It’s time to work on lots of fronts simultaneously to change the educational landscape so that we can buy a lot more coffee mugs with inspirational sayings for the teachers of our future.

Inside schools, there is also important seed work to be done. As a teacher, I hear a lot about what isn’t working and why. If you’re a teacher who cares about the teacher crisis, stop kvetching and start smiling. Activist Anthony Kapel Van Jones said it best, “Martin Luther King didn’t become famous by saying, ‘I have a complaint.'” We went into teaching because we have big, ambitious dreams, not because we have complaints. We can’t inspire the next generation of teachers by griping about what’s wrong with the field. And maybe by inspiring others to enter education, we will renew and refresh our own commitment to the dreams that brought us to the classroom in the first place.

So to all the teachers out there: thank you. Bless you. We need you to grow the next generation of teachers by deliberately planting the seeds now, no matter what grade you teach. When I was in elementary school, I wanted to be an elementary school teacher. When I was in high school, I wanted to be a high school teacher. When I became an adult, I wanted to teach adults because at every stage, I was influenced by great teachers. Find a few minutes to tell each of your classes why you went into teaching. Invite your students to consider teaching as a career. The few who take you up on it will one day be in their classrooms, in part, because of you, and the others will have greater respect for you and the profession.

Imagine what this sacred field would look like if every teacher made the case for teaching by sharing with every class when he or she decided to become a teacher and why. Imagine a Shabbat table where a teacher talked about why the profession matters to the world and why it matters to that teacher. Imagine sharing the magic of a moment when as a teacher, you are most alive in the classroom. Imagine a head of school taking a few minutes at a professional day for every teacher to fill out an index card with the prompt “I teach because…” Now imagine a large corkboard at the entrance to every school covered in those cards. I’d want to send my kids to that school. I’d want to go to that school.

At the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership, we take seeding the next generation of teachers seriously. If you’re a teacher of any subject and any grade, enter our contest. We’re asking you to fill in our virtual board by completing this statement in a hundred words of less and send it over before December 30th to ericabrown@gwu.edu. “I teach because…”

Don’t forget to tell us your name, what you teach, where you teach and what grade you teach. We will be posting these responses. The top entry will receive a $100 Amazon gift card. With the gift card, you may want to buy a mug with Forest Witcraft’s famous words: “One hundred years from now, it won’t matter what kind of car I drove, what kind of house I lived in, how much money I had in the bank, or what my clothes looked like, but the world may be a little better because I was important in the life of a child.”

Dr. Erica Brown is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at The George Washington University and director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership.