The Difference Maker

Teaching is hard. It’s real hard. Most of us have seen some sort of picture or meme which describes all the different things teachers must be for their students. Most of these are true. Unless one has ever stood in front of a classroom and attempted to facilitate student learning, they have little clue what teaching is truly like. As Todd Whitaker has said, a non-educator who thinks they know how to teach because they were once a student is like the rest of us being master plumbers because we flushed a toilet this morning. There are many people out there who feel they have the answers even though they lack the training and understanding of research those of us in education have.

I live in a county with four independent, rural K-8 school districts which send students to our town’s high school. There is one business I go to on occasion in which the same conversation seems to pop up when the owner remembers I am the superintendent of one of the K-8 schools. It begins something like “I think all five schools should consolidate and become one. Our kids would be better off if they all had the same curriculum and were being taught the same things.” Whether it's a comment such as this or a debate on charter schools, my answer is the same. It's not the name of the school, the type of school, or even the curriculum that matters most. What matters most is the teacher in the classroom. 

The teacher in the classroom. 

No one person feels more pressure to produce results. And, unfortunately, no profession is respected less. This is a shame, too, because we have many incredible teachers in our classrooms.

There are many people trying to tell us how to do our jobs better. Believe us when we say we want to be better, too. Great teachers are never content with the status quo, and they are always reflecting and growing so they can continue to be better for students. 

Unfortunately, not every teacher is a great teacher. (same for administrators) It's a sad reality. The truth is, there are people in every profession who aren't great at what they do. Architects, lawyers, doctors, nurses, plumbers, electricians, mechanics, etc. Please do not bash an entire profession because of a few. We realize every student deserves a great teacher. And we strive to make this happen.

Getting great teachers in every classroom is a difficult task. For starters, fewer people are wanting to be teachers. There used to be a time when entering the teaching profession was encouraged and held with high regard. That has changed the last few decades. We no longer encourage enough of our best students to become teachers. Families also discourage choosing education. I can recall a member of my own family voicing his displeasure when I changed my major from business to education.

The lack of respect and income potential are major factors.

We don't enter education for the money. We enter education because of the profound impact we can have on the lives of young people. This is one of the messages we need to be sharing as we try to encourage more of our students to become teachers.

My wife and I were recently discussing these concerns and she brought up a great point. She noted colleges have extremely high standards for entry into medical school but low standards for teacher ed programs. How many students with an ACT score of 12 get into medical school? It happens with teacher preparation programs. I recall one of my undergraduate classes in which a professor asked those in the room why we chose our particular area of education. An elementary education major responded "I chose elementary because I'm bad at math." This happened to be a math education professor, and he candidly let his thoughts be known. I have asked applicants the same question. One time I was told "because the university didn't offer anything else." As a parent, these truths concern me. As an administrator involved in hiring, these responses do not show the passion I'm seeking in a potential hire.

Despite all of this, we should know that our education system is not broken. Our high school graduation rates are at all-time highs. When we compare ourselves with other countries in ways that compare apples to apples, we are doing extremely well. And, often times, much better than those countries that are typically mentioned as being the highest achieving.

Our country has great teachers. Teachers who are great at connecting with students, teachers who are passionate about what they do, and teachers who successfully challenge students to think, create, and achieve at levels they never knew were possible. 

Every student deserves a great teacher. Not by chance, but by design. This design process begins early on when we're encouraging high school students to become educators. It continues in college when students are being trained for teaching. The best learning ultimately occurs when teachers actually begin teaching. Teachers learn through reflection, instructional coaching, and various professional learning opportunities. 

It was stated earlier that what matters most is the teacher in the classroom. John Hattie's Visible Learning research indicates that about 95% of the influences on student achievement above the 0.4 hinge point are within a teacher's control or influence. The best teachers view this as liberating. It's liberating because, despite all of the baggage and obstacles in our students' lives, we can overcome and still have a major impact on each of them.

Hattie's research reinforces the importance and value of having a great teacher in every classroom. It's not the name on the school, the type of school, the technology being used, or the curriculum. The most important factor determining whether our students succeed in school is the teacher in the classroom. 

So who's the difference maker? 

It's the teacher in the classroom.


It's also you. You can be a difference maker by encouraging our best and brightest young people to enter the incredible, rewarding profession of education.

Whatever your role, go be a difference maker!

Doug Dunn is superintendent and principal of a small K-8 school in rural, south central Missouri. He can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.