In the Daily Pilot a few days ago, the community’s other school district activist, Sandy Asper, penned an excellent column (,0,174693.story) about developing and defining the term “education.”

The premise of the column is excellent and I realized later that 10 of us may have 10 different definitions of “education” and beliefs about what education should accomplish. Some readers long for the days of the 3 R’s. Some would like kids to know as much about computers and technology as possible. Some want more arts, others more athletics, and still others want more emphasis on character development.

All of these are interesting directions and it is important to remember that our final definition of education could include all of these things. But at the street level, it is hard for many teachers – even most – to do much more than get through the day.

The success of education – in whatever form or direction it takes – will not be dependent upon the success or failure of Common Core, Swun Math, athletics, a music program, or any of the other micro issues on which we spend too much time debating.

At the end of the day, the success of the nation’s education program will depend on the quality of the teachers we entrust with this most important task. And frankly, as a society, we are failing to reward teachers appropriately.

“Reward” means money only to those who are wired that way. To the rest of, including most teachers, reward means respect and job satisfaction. Do teachers want more money? Of course! But I have communicated with so many teachers over the past fifteen years that it is clear to me that while they will never turn down more compensation, they would gladly trade (some of) it for the chance to… teach.

I’ve said repeatedly that teachers do not get into the profession to get rich. Once teachers have put in a few years, it’s a pretty good gig, except for one big issue. Today, teachers are being hamstrung by the effects of bureaucratic foolishness such as excessive testing, changing priorities, and prodigious oversight, which prevents them from doing the very thing they were hired to do.

There was a time when a major news event could prompt even a high school math teacher to stop a lesson and discuss the current event with his or her class. She could do this because she had some wiggle room in her day and she wanted to do this because it helped the kids in the class to have an outlet for their thoughts. There was even a time in the Los Angeles Unified School District during which a sixth grade teacher could pause the school day and allow the entire class to listen on the radio for a time to hear Sandy Koufax pitch for the Dodgers in the World Series. That is true. Don’t ask me how I know, (and thank you very much Mervyn McLeod of Laurel Elementary School), but I know.

No more. Today, we have asked teachers to do all the things we hate about our own jobs. Ask a police officer what he or she dislikes about the job and the first thing you’ll hear is “the paperwork.” Ask a mental health counselor for the county and you’ll hear the same thing. And you’ll also hear it from nurses, retail store managers, and just about everyone else who is employed.

But teachers aren’t selling clothes in a department store, they’re not serving up scoops of ice cream and they’re not unclogging our drains. Teachers are shaping the minds of our children. Teachers are inspiring our kids. At least, they’d like to.

The best teachers are experts in communication. Whatever they need to teach, they have figured out how to present it in a way that engages students and leaves them hungry for more. Yvonne Schwartz did that for me when I was a high school student. She was the first person who told me I should be a writer and though it took me another 23 years to get around to it, I thought of her on the day I got my check for my first newspaper column.

At the end of the day, the first and best step toward retaking our position as the world leader in education is to free teachers to teach. Without this fundamental shift in the education process, we will continue to burn out and turnover teachers at an alarming rate. The data supports this trend.

In a 2011 report, “Profile of Teachers in the U.S.,” C. Emily Feistritzer of the National Center for Education found that:

  • The proportion of public school teachers who have five or fewer years of teaching experience increased from 18 percent in 2005 to 26 percent in 2011.
  • The proportion of teachers with 25 or more years’ experience dropped from 27 percent in 2005 to 17 percent in 2011.
  • The proportion of teachers under 30 years of age rose dramatically from the 2005 survey to 2011.
  • The proportion of teachers 50 and older dropped.
  • More than one in five (22 percent) teachers surveyed in 2011 was under the age of 30, compared with only 11 percent in 2005 and in 1996.
  • The proportion of teachers 50 and older dropped from 42 percent in 2005 to 31 percent in 2011.

Feistritzer cocluded that older teachers are retiring and being replaced  by teachers in their 20s and 30s. And it may surprise you to know that More than half of public school teachers hold at least a Master’s degree.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average national turnover for all teachers is 17 percent, and in urban school districts specifically, the number jumps to 20 percent. The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future proffers starker numbers, estimating that one-third of all new teachers leave after three years, and 46 percent are gone within five years.

If education in America or even in the N-MUSD is to be successful, we cannot continue the shabby treatment of our teachers. (And again – it’s NOT ABOUT THE MONEY.) We must stop the turnover, stop the burnout, and stop the bubble-filling that dominates the teacher’s day.

If we want teachers to inspire our students, let’s start by inspiring our teachers.

Steve Smith