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America Loves Celebrity Chefs, But Who Are Our Celebrity Teachers?

I have a confession to make: I'm a bit of a K-12 snob.

I mean, when I refer to "teachers," I more often than not think about the thousands of K-12 practitioners from pre-kindergarten all the way through senior year of high school, inclusive of all subjects and types of schools (alternative transfer high schools look a little different, but still have a "senior year," right?). The term "educator," on the other hand, works for everyone such as professors, principals, and anyone directly charged with the learning of our children.

This came up because Robert Pondiscio, former VP of Core Knowledge, changed his Facebook status to the following:

Make a list of celebrity chefs. 2. Make a list of celebrity teachers. 3. Compare.

From there, a few of us chimed into the discussion, opining aloud who fits the mold of "celebrity teacher." People like Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Melissa Harris-Perry come off the list because, you guessed it, none of them work K-12, and, as much as some of us hate to admit it, college professors get a much higher level of respect from our society than local teachers do in terms of expertise. Even people like Diane Ravitch, Pedro Noguera, and Linda Darling-Hammond, professors focused on education, come off the list for the same reason.

Not K-12, not applicable.

Then, I ran down the list quickly and thought of Jaime Escalante, Joe Clark, and Erin Gruwell, of Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me, and Freedom Writers fame respectively. Then Rob reminded me that it’s been more than twenty years since Escalante's star turn, about 20 years since Joe Clark's turn, and about seven since Erin Gruwell's 15 minutes. Ron Clark, the Oprah-celebrated teacher who taught in both North Carolina and Harlem was certainly popular, but how quickly would he garner real attention from the average American?

Deborah Meier and Robert Moses were MacArthur geniuses, and actually have verified Wikipedia pages, but they're so selfless that the organizations they represent have gotten way more attention than their own works.

The term "celebrity teacher" is such a difficult one too, because it presumes that the spotlight should focus strictly on the teacher and not on the ways in which that teacher helps students. The profession doesn’t lend itself to alpha dogs and sunbathers of the egoistic type. Yet, I have a hard time with the idea that, in a landscape with people so replete with opinions about our profession, that we shouldn’t have the same viability when we speak about it ourselves.

Hate to say it, but, as much as I appreciate allies, colleagues, and anyone willing to lend a voice to a whole-child, solutions-oriented movement, I can’t sit back and wonder how long it will take before we have professional autonomy. We have to learn how to craft our voices such that we can have celebrity teachers, individuals who speak to the collective conscience of the educational experience with our own agency, not the wills of others, no matter how well-meaning.

Someone will eventually fight me on this, but I hope you smell what I'm cooking.

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A version of this post originally appeared at The Future of Teaching

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