It’s World Teachers’ Day. Here’s What Teachers — And Their Students — Need Most

It's World Teachers' Day. Here's What Teachers -- And Their Students -- Need Most

Saturday is World Teachers’ Day – a time to appreciate the people we’ve charged with educating the next generation of innovators, scientists, and creators. It’s also a time to take action and make the changes that will transform educators’ lives, taking a close look at the challenges they face and what it will take to address them.

This work is more important than ever, especially in STEM. Right now, the people with the passion and potential to advance technology, mitigate the impacts of climate change, and cure diseases like dementia are sitting in our nation’s classrooms.

Authentic problem-solving spurs curiosity and STEM success Purdue University 2018 Engineering Gift Guide

To build the skills that will take us into the 22nd century, they need teachers with the training and support to ignite their curiosity and foster creative problem-solving.

But too often, teachers in the U.S. don’t get that support. The teacher strikes and protests that stunned the nation last year and continue in many parts of the country aren’t just about low pay. They are also about a culture that doesn’t sufficiently value teachers and the role of education, often leaving students and teachers without the resources they need, perpetuating inequality and fortifying barriers to progress as a result. Today In: Leadership

When teachers thrive, students thrive.

When teachers thrive, students thrive. TEC Center at Erikson Institute

Through my organization’s research and interviews with STEM teachers, we’ve found that many schools aren’t creating strong, professional work environments that help teachers do their jobs effectively and feel appreciated. Despite all the buzz around STEM education, school administrators often undervalue STEM and, as a result, fail to invest in professional growth for STEM teachers. Across the board, teachers feel that they are not being treated as professionals, meaning that there are few opportunities for professional development or collaboration with their peers.

STEMteachersNYC, professional development for teachers, by teachers, about teaching

Rachel Smith, a STEM teacher in the Southern Tioga School District in Pennsylvania, told me, “Teachers, just like most modern professionals, feel appreciated when they work in an environment that values their unique contributions.”

And science and engineering teacher Carly Baldwin from Boyd County High School in Ashland, Kentucky, agreed: “The general public should acknowledge that teachers are professionals and should be respected the same as any other field that requires advanced degrees and specialized training.”

Rachel Smith at a recent 100Kin10 workshop

Rachel Smith at a recent 100Kin10 workshop 100Kin10

When leading teachers like Rachel and Carly sound an alarm around lack of respect, we shouldn’t be surprised that we’re facing a teacher shortage.

Appreciating teachers is too often a head-fake, gesturing in one direction and then moving in another. What’s needed is genuine change. That means more than just offering better pay. It means building time into teachers’ workdays for professional development. It means allowing them to work (and network!) with their peers and experts. It means encouraging them to take risks and explore creative teaching methods.

We also need to create an environment where teachers’ creativity thrives and is encouraged and incentivized. Current high-stakes testing for students limits teachers’ ability to be experimental in the classroom – a major barrier to STEM education. As part of our Teacher Forum, we’ve heard from teachers across the country who are being pressured to “meet the minimum” instead of prioritizing real learning in STEM. As one example, the focus on standardized tests continues to force teachers to devote class time to test prep and memorization rather than problem-solving and critical thinking.

As Chimna Uche, a math and computer science teacher at CREC Academy of Aerospace and Engineering in Windsor, Connecticut, put it, “We should be monitoring the growth of students who enter a teacher’s classroom and be aware of the environment in which they work, not judge teachers in isolation.”

We’ve also learned that the challenges STEM teachers face start long before they enter the classroom, so the goal of improving our educators’ skills needs to start long before they enter the classroom, too. Teacher training programs have a critical role to play as we work to better prepare our teachers to enter the classroom and ensure our kids are getting the skills to succeed later in school and in the workforce. For math education in elementary school, for example, too many teachers have not been trained based on what we know about how children best learn math. Math faculty in these training programs are experts in their field but may have no familiarity with the realities of today’s classrooms.

Teacher training programs have an opportunity to be a key part of the solution as we focus on better preparing educators. Training programs can promote professional development for faculty so that future teachers are being trained and instructed in the latest and greatest teaching practices. IDEAS at Rider University in New Jersey is an excellent example of a program that is doing this – they hold monthly meetings for science, mathematics, and education faculty to discuss authentic, interactive teaching methods. Experienced elementary school teachers and STEM faculty should also partner to share insights and improve training—work that is being pioneered by Math Teacher Circles. And this emphasis on professional development and partnership must continue after teachers enter the workforce.

If we’re serious about STEM education, we have to start with teachers. Our country needs them more than ever. At the structural level, our research shows, it’s time to change our beliefs about schools to recognize that teacher learning is inextricably linked with student learning.

So this World Teachers’ Day, let’s commit to authentically appreciating, and improving, our educators lives. We can transform their experience of this incredible profession in ways we know work and will make a real difference for the next generation of inventors, creators and thinkers.

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