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The Key to It All

March 29, 2010

“Will you do what you can to keep them interested in the teaching profession?  They need some inspiration.”

It is a Friday morning and the auditorium at Santiago Canyon College, a community college in Orange, California, is filling up quickly with college kids who want to be teachers.   Despite being the last day of Spring Break, and an early start time, there is a buzz and energy in the room.

This year’s theme for the annual Future Teacher Conference is “Raising the Bar in Teacher Education.”  As the keynote speaker, I am asked to keep the students interested in the teaching profession and inspired.  I know I have a tall order to fill.  Not only do I need to speak for 50 minutes, but the “warm-up” by Kalonji Saterfied, one of the conference facilitators, will be a tough act to follow.  He is personable, funny, and positive, and his persistent question to the audience – “Is that good or great” – elicits shouts of “great” every time.

Plus, the education news these last few weeks has not been good.  A few days earlier, State Superintendent O’Connell announced that 21,905 pink slips were issued to teachers across California.  Several school districts, including massive Los Angeles Unified School District, are cutting days from the school year because they are facing huge deficits.  And, the constant finger-pointing about who to blame for failing schools and budget problems continues.

So I begin, and do my best to convince these young, dynamic, and somewhat innocent students that teaching still is one of the most rewarding professions.  That being a teacher provides the singular opportunity to change a child’s life by building confidence, focusing on excellence, and providing the skills necessary to succeed.  That teachers have an extraordinary opportunity to inspire an entire generation – a generation that will be called upon, whether they like it or not, to shape the future of our democracy.   Teaching, I tell them, takes passion, perseverance, and the uncanny ability to know when to step in and nurture and when to remain quiet and listen.

I also mention that the best teaching sometimes happens when you least expect it: at a one-on-one conference with a student to discuss a term paper topic, over buckets of paint and beds of flowers with the class at a Saturday community service project, or during the quick banter you have with a student or two in the hall between passing periods.

I share with them the story of a student I taught for seven years at our 6-12 school.  A quiet, uncertain young girl, she had been bounced from foster home to foster home most of her life.  She received poor grades in sixth and seventh grades, struggling not only with reading and math, but also with a lack of self-confidence and hope.  In incremental steps, she slowly improved.  Last spring, confident and prepared, she graduated summa cum laude with a full academic scholarship to college.  Despite all of her hard work, she still attributes her success to teachers who cared about her.

Yes, teaching really is one of the most rewarding and important professions.

At the end of my presentation, I ask the crowd “Do you want to be a teacher?”  The auditorium fills with hands in the air.  I sense a bright future for our profession.  However, I also sense that these fresh, young future teachers will be entering a profession that will occasionally confound and frustrate them with pink slips, furloughs, pay cuts, and bickering among the stakeholders.

Now is the time for policy makers and legislatures to recognize that, in order to recruit and retain bright minds in our classrooms, we must provide teachers with the support, funding, and leadership opportunities necessary to keep the system strong.  It is also the time for all of us – parents, community members, administrators, unions, and teachers – to realize that education systems, like students, do not come in one-size-fits-all.  We must be willing to test and embrace new approaches to teaching and learning in an effort to weather the financial storm, provide equity in education, and meet the critical needs of our democratic society.

A functioning education system is critical to the future of our country.  It is national security, health care, economic stimulus, and civil rights all rolled into one.  And recruiting passionate and accomplished future teachers, like those sitting in this college auditorium, is the key to it all.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 29, 2010 8:37 am

    Thanks for sharing this story, and for the work you are doing to inspire the next generation. The thought of all those hands in the air makes me feel a great sense of responsibility for those who follow in our footsteps. What shape are we leaving this profession in? How have we protected the rights and roles of those who will come after us? Will others even choose this profession if it continues to suffer from budget cuts and blame?

    We have to keep returning, as you have done here, to the reason we choose to teach. To the precious chances we have to make a difference in a child’s life. To the times we were able to break through the clutter of tests and assignments and connect to a student as a human being, and help them feel valued.

  2. Kelly Kovacic permalink
    March 30, 2010 7:44 pm

    Thank you for your comment. Being in a room filled with aspiring teachers reminded me of the power of our profession to make a difference. And yet as you point out, if we don’t protect “the rights and roles” of those who will enter teaching, those bright minds we need in classroom will choose to go elsewhere.

  3. M. Sola permalink
    March 31, 2010 6:17 pm


    I hope your charges at the conference will take your message of passion and perseverance to heart and never let it go. Too many of us send discouraging and mixed messages about teaching and education; We praise the teaching profession, yet condemn the teacher. We expect the overwhelmed teacher to be a counselor-therapist-social worker-disciplinarian and parent, yet do not support their efforts laying all of societies faults and shortcomings at their doorstep.

    Everyday, I’m thankful for leaders like you and your colleagues who through your tireless dedication, knowledge and wisdom try to make the world a more enlightened and beautiful place in spite of overwhelming odds. Don’t ever lose your optimism and enthusiasm. We’re counting on you, even thought it may not show.

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