Changing the perception of teachers is among the most important challenges facing public education, said Michelle Shearer, the 2011 National Teacher of the Year, at a Sunday afternoon session.
“The conversation always comes back to the teacher,” said Shearer, who teaches Advanced Placement chemistry in Frederick, Md. “We know parents have the greatest power and community support makes a huge difference, but it’s the teacher who is in the trenches on a daily basis.”
And while teachers are charged with shaping the next generation, they are often under-resourced and more importantly, under-appreciated.
“We have this amazing ability to talk out of both sides of our mouths,” Shearer said. While society wants the best and brightest to teach, it often discourages the best and the brightest from going into teaching.
Shearer knows this firsthand. Growing up, she always wanted to be a teacher, but her aspirations were met with a tepid response from her family. When she went away to college, her roommate asked flatly, “You came to Princeton and all you want to be is a teacher?”
The less-than-inspiring comments chipped away at Shearer’s self-confidence, causing her to question her career path and settle on a degree in chemistry. She figured she could always volunteer to teach, which she did at the Maryland School for the Deaf.
“Something about that environment really drew me in,” said Shearer, who attributes many of her teaching philosophies to her time at the school. Indeed, it gave her the courage to pursue teaching in spite of the naysayers that she continues to encounter.
Shortly after being named Maryland’s teacher of the year, Shearer was out having dinner with her family when a woman kept looking over at their table. After confirming Shearer’s recent accolade, the woman leaned over to Shearer’s father and whispered something in his ear.
“He got this strange look on his face,” Shearer said. “She’d told him, ‘All that education just to be teacher.’ This is someone in my own community. But that perception is very real.”
And that perception is sometimes perpetuated by the very people who want to enter the teaching ranks.
Traveling around the world in her official capacity, Shearer hears people say teaching is their backup plan or that teaching is a prelude to their real career. One even shared that teaching would allow him a break before he headed to law school.
Shearer maintained that good teachers ultimately must possess three critical traits: unconditional love for students, boundless energy, and staying power.
“No matter how we try to engage or entertain, we are always in danger at every moment of losing our students. That’s a very real challenge for teachers,” she said. “In my world, when a student crosses that line between excitement and exasperation, it shows up in a physical form called a drop slip … at that moment, it doesn’t matter that I have a degree in Princeton, or what the policy says or curriculum dictates. All that matters is if I have a relationship with that student and I better hope that relationship runs deep.”