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Want to Improve Education? Change the Way You Talk About Teachers

The number one thing you shouldn't say? "I could never be a teacher."

In our Transforming Schools Together series, teachers affiliated with the Center for Teaching Quality invite us to re-imagine the very concept of school, and suggest small actions we can take to improve existing schools.

How people (you included!) talk about a profession shapes how people think about it. And this, of course, influences who chooses the profession for a career, and how the profession's members are treated.

I've been a teacher in Boston Public Schools since 2003, and am constantly jarred by how those outside the teaching profession talk about and to those of us who have chosen teaching as a career. The implications of such speech are massive.

Want to help improve education? Start with something simple: shifting the way you talk to and about teachers.

1. Don't say: "I could never be a teacher."

Why not: Me, I love being a teacher. If you got solid preparation and taught in a school that was a good fit for you, you probably would love it, too. Honestly. Teachers are made, not born! But the more that people badmouth the profession or act as though teachers must have some special DNA, the fewer smart, innovative people will recognize teaching for the great career option it is. The fewer top-notch teachers we have, the harder it is to improve education.

2. Don’t say: "Teachers have it easy."

Why not: Teachers do a ton of work outside of school hours, and also grapple with emotional and intellectual challenges worthy of the world's top minds. We have some nice perks that other jobs lack, but we’re also the ones grading 140 essays, weekend after weekend. We love having a change of pace during the summer, but most of us spend July and August doing professional development and taking extra jobs to make ends meet. Very few careers are "easy," and teaching is certainly not one of them!

3. On the flip side, don't say: "Ahh, you teachers are such saints. You have an impossible job."

Why not: Saints are individuals who die because of great pain and hardship. Yipes! Few people WANT to go into a field described in this way. Further, in a well-run school, it is not necessary to sacrifice one’s health and sanity to be a teacher. I have a nice, vibrant life outside of school, not a pair of wings! Less clinging to the destructive teacher-as-martyr fallacy, please.

4. Don't say: "I don't have the patience to be a teacher."

Why not: This phrase perpetuates the idea of teachers as low-level babysitters in a career that no one wants. Patience implies drudgery, not brain power. The truth is that teaching is a highly intellectual, interesting, stimulating career that requires thinking, ingenuity, and pizazz.

So what SHOULD you say about the teaching profession?

DO say: "Oh, you're a teacher! Tell me more!"

Why: People assume they know what it's like to be a teacher, but in fact, "teacher" is radically different depending on the school, district, and person. Rather than making a declaration about the entire career, ask an open-ended question to learn more. Hopefully you will begin to see why so many of us love our teaching job!

We'll be interested to hear more about your career, too. By showing mutual respect and curiosity, we can find creative, fulfilling ways to combine our powers and improve our world’s education... together. And this starts in how we speak!

What would YOU add to or revise on this list?

Lillie Marshall has been a teacher in the Boston Public Schools since 2003, and runs Around the World “L” Global Education Siteand TeachingTraveling.comalong with the Education Bloggers Facebook Group. She is a member of the Center for Teaching Quality’s virtual community of teachers.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user US Department of Education

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