Never has there been a more important time than this moment, right now, to think about and appreciate what great teachers have done for our children and also for us. We have seen what the world looks like when its teachers are taken away from our children. We have witnessed online how teachers have struggled mightily to master complex digital platforms and to try and make virtual class interactions with children as enriching as possible. Plunged into virtual learning at very short notice, our own grandchild’s teacher has posted materials as early as 4am. We have also learned about all the teachers who delivered curriculum materials, workbooks, pens and paper to poor working class homes when many children were unable to access online learning. We’ve been experiencing a world without teachers. So it’s time to reflect on why teachers truly matter.
Let me give you just one personal example. Mary Waring was my high school geography teacher. She cultivated interests in geography and geology that have stayed with me all my life and that I have then passed on to others, sometimes with an enthusiasm that borders on the excessive. Her fieldtrips identifying local features of physical geography took us by a local riverbank and into nearby quarries where we looked for traces of old crustaceans imprinted into the rocks. With my best high school friend, I then went further afield, up into the hills, collecting my own samples that I have kept to this day. I studied geography and geology as part of my university studies and only gave it up for a sociology degree because of another inspiring university teacher. But I continued to add to my rock and mineral collection well into adulthood. I passed on some of my excitement to my young children. And one of them, my daughter, Lucy, who was also inspired by a geography teacher of her own, became an environmental geographer and went on to become a senior leader for Canada’s Minister of the Environment.
Then, yesterday, it was my 6-year old grand daughter’s online show and tell. She stood proudly in front of her laptop screen, clutching a small rock she had collected on the lakeshore. Taking a magnifying glass, she drew attention to an imprint in the rock. “This could be a fossil”, she said. “Do you have any other fossils?” her teacher asked? “Not yet, but my granddad has lots”, she said. “And when I grow up, I want to be a palaeontologist”. So now, this weekend, my wife and I will be taking a three-hour drive to scope out a fossil collecting site where we might be able to take our grandchildren before the winter sets in. And all this, all of this, began with one teacher, an undertaker’s widow who was closing in on retirement - Mary Waring.
Think of an interest you have in your work, family or leisure. Then consider who introduced you to it. There’s a good chance it was a teacher. We often say that great teachers follow their students’ interests. Truly great teachers initiate new interests too, ones that sometimes last a lifetime, leading to adult passions, career choices, and much more, that are pursued throughout the life course and passed on to future generations.
When I was about 15-years old, Mary Waring, also enabled us to pursue weeks-long projects on geographical subjects of intense personal interest. I’d lost my Dad a couple of years earlier. My eldest brother, Peter, tried to replace him in some ways by taking me to football matches and on epic hikes across the hills in nothing more than my school shoes. But then, when I was 14 years old, Peter decided to leave his factory job and emigrate on one of the last ships out of Liverpool for a better life to Canada where he wanted to become a mountie (though when he got there, it turned out he was half an inch too short). We thought we’d never see him again. So, on the front of my project book about Canada, its mountains, forests, minerals and lakes, was my own carefully painted picture of an RCMP officer. And look where I’m living now – across the other side of the Atlantic from where I grew up, as a 25-year-long Canadian citizen. This too began with Mrs Waring.
But Mary Waring wasn’t just an inspiring subject teacher. On one unforgettable occasion, a couple of years on, when I had decided to stay home for a few days’ unauthorized absence to revise for my university entrance examinations, I went out at lunchtime to investigate the sound of loud banging on the back door. I thought I needed to let in the coalman. When I unbolted the door, however, I came face to face with my geography teacher. She had been unable to make herself heard at the front because I was playing raucous rock music. Entering our tiny living room, she looked askance at my brother’s new wife, fully made up, and wearing a red velvet dress. My sister-in-law tried waving her wedding ring finger in the air to counter the impression that she might have been my girlfriend!! But Mary Waring knew I’d struggled sometimes in the years following my father’s death, especially after my Mum collapsed with a breakdown, and we had ended up on welfare. She understood me as whole person with a life outside school as well as within it. So she didn’t rant and rave, criticize or cajole, but calmly suggested it might be a good idea to return to school now and complete my studying there – which I duly did, going on to win the school geography prize several months later.
This is what so many teachers do. They inspire our children with new interests, develop their curiosity about learning, give them the chance to undertake protracted projects that enable them to explore their interests, and, to some extent, themselves in depth. And they engage with the totality of their children’s development as human beings. Even when you’re not perfect and have let yourself down, teachers like this still stand by you and help put you back on the right path again.
So it’s a disgrace and a shame that for more than 20 years, in many countries, politicians thought they could lower the cost of government spending by disinvesting in public education, and by demeaning and discouraging its teachers. They thought they could privatize schools and deregulate teaching so that teachers would be less qualified, less unionized, and less well supported, and therefore move on quickly before their salaries started to climb. And they thought and still sometimes think that teachers were expendable and could be substituted with digital devices. They claimed that education could take place anytime, anywhere, with teachers or without them. And they believed that impersonal algorithms could replace teachers’ professional judgments. Government leaders, media and business critics, and more than a few thought leaders, promulgated crude stereotypes of bad teaching that was allegedly ruining children’s lives. In-person teaching was portrayed as being teaching from the front, in the boring classes of factory age schools. These portrayals, as fictitious as the US voter ballots allegedly dumped into unnamed rivers, have then been used to try and replace teachers with online learning.
Then, all of a sudden, the biggest natural educational experiment in human history – taking nearly 2 billion children out of school – has made everyone think again. What is a world like without teachers?
It’s a place without an economy because parents can’t go to work if their children aren’t in school.
It’s a place where teenagers can’t be with their peers, developing their senses of identity and responsibility away from their parents.
It’s a place that can’t protect young people from being bullied, or prevent many others from turning into bullies.
It’s a place that builds no sense of community or of how to participate in society.
It’s a place where teachers can’t be the high water mark that separates order from chaos, where they can’t intervene calmly when there’s trouble, and where there’s no-one to help children focus, when they are otherwise easily distracted.
A world without teachers is also a place where children have no way to learn how to express their own ideas and listen to others, to take their turn, and to value differences.
Teachers ignite new interests, show you the difference between your first effort and your best effort, and help you achieve things you never would have thought possible if you had been left to yourself.
Teachers help young people learn about racism, prejudice, climate change and the Holocaust, even and especially when youngsters’ parents don’t.
A world without teachers is a world deprived of learning and with a lot less love. Appreciate your children’s teachers, and reflect back on the teachers who made a difference for you.
It’s time to bring our teachers back, not just physically in our schools, but also morally, at the very center of our societies. Please celebrate World Teachers Day.
On 5 October, Education International marks World Teachers’ Day with a 24-hour virtual broadcast spanning the globe. Teachers everywhere will come together to share what they have learned as a profession and how we can ensure inclusive equitable quality education for all moving forward.
The full programme, featuring teachers from across the globe, as well as Presidents, Prime Ministers, Ministers of Education, heads of international organisations, famous journalists and scientists, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, and many more, is available at >www.5oct.org/programme/>.
The event will be livestreamed across all Education International platforms and you can register here.
All streaming links will be available on the day at >www.5oct.org/watch/>, with interpretation to English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese, Russian and Japanese.
Join the global conversation on October 5!