In praise of teachers

For the past two decades, we have been bombarded by politicians and business leaders lamenting about the state of public education in Florida and in the nation. As someone who has dedicated my life to educating our children and building a strong system of public education, this has always perplexed me. Anyone who has had any contact with our schools knows countless stories of dedicated professionals whose sole focus in their professional lives is to teach and prepare children for their futures.

Instead of a steady barrage of criticism and negativity, we should be celebrating the achievements of the hundreds of thousands of people in Florida — and the millions nationwide — who are making a difference in ensuring that every child receives a high-quality education. This week affords us all a perfect opportunity as it is American Education Week, an annual event started 92 years ago by the National Education Association.

I hope that those who are so critical of our public schools take time this week to reflect on what brought us into this important profession. I hope that they would understand the passion of our mission — to open a child’s mind to its infinite possibilities. That’s not achieved with scripted lesson plans and an all-encompassing atmosphere of testing. It’s achieved with allowing teachers the freedom and creativity to design ways to achieve the standards and tailor them to their individual students. Education isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition. Teachers need the freedom to find ways to connect meaningfully with students, design lessons that address students’ needs and use our talents to improve the lives of others.

And teachers aren’t the only dedicated professionals who play a role in educating our children. Education support professionals drive the buses, clean the buildings, prepare the meals, and bandage the scraped knees. They include the security guards, paraeducators, office assistants and technicians. ESPs are the first to arrive at school and the last to leave, and schools couldn’t operate without them. Even though they make up more than 40 percent of all public school employees, their role in supporting students and teachers is often overlooked. Education support professionals are public education’s unsung heroes. National Education Support Professionals Day is observed Wednesday during American Education Week.

Public education attracts individuals who seek to do good work. But sometimes political leaders get in the way, as they have in imposing the current high-stakes accountability system. Scripted lessons that divest teachers of using their talents in planning, mandated curriculum that allows no space for teachers to respond to students’ academic needs and interests, and testing practices that impose incredible pressure on teachers, administrators, students and parents are a hindrance to instilling in children a love of learning.

I ran across a quote from television journalist Tom Brokaw: “There is a place in America to take a stand: it is public education. It is the underpinning of our cultural and political system. It is the great common ground. Public education after all is the engine that moves us as a society toward a common destiny . . . It is in public education that the American dream begins to take shape.”

This week — and every week — we should celebrate public education in Florida and in America.

Andy Ford is the president of the 140,000-member Florida Education Association.

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