It can be easy to take for granted the value of elements in our lives that seem always to have been present. Running water, electricity, and heat are tangible examples. Despite the positive impact these systems have on our lives, we may criticize and complain when for some reason they do not work perfectly or fall short of our expectations. We can forget what life would be like without them.
Teachers fit into this category. Our society is so accustomed to having professional people ready to teach, guide, and support learning that their value often is given little thought. The pandemic was in many ways a wakeup call. Communities experienced a stark reminder of what life would be like without the constant support of educators. Initially, educators were hailed as heroes and saviors for leaning into a desperate situation and providing support under incredibly difficult conditions. However, now that conditions have returned to something approximating normal, there is a tendency to complain and criticize educators because learning conditions and support systems did not work as well as they might have had there been time and opportunity for adequate preparation and planning.
Consequently, this seems like a suitable time to step back and reflect on the enduring value educators offer in our lives and the lives of children and young people. Most of us can point to a teacher who had a positive and lasting impact on our lives. They may have given us confidence to persist in the face of a difficult challenge. They may have tapped an area of interest, passion, or talent that gave us a reason to learn. They may have given us a vision of who we could be that was beyond what we believed or imagined possible. Or they may have just encouraged, valued, and respected us in ways that lead us to adopt and practice these ideals in our lives.
Several years ago, a study at Stanford University attempted to quantify the value of good teachers in economic terms. Among their findings was that an excellent teacher can account for as much as a twenty percent increase in the lifetime earnings of their students. The impact could mean several hundred thousand dollars of additional income over the course of a career. The reasons for such an impact are not difficult to discern. Great teachers provide students with the skills and motivation to keep learning. They help students to lift their aspirations and give them confidence to stretch and to take on challenges that lead to life success. A student who never considered higher education, a skilled career, or starting their own business can be inspired by a teacher who sees potential and “lights a fire” of passion and possibility.
Teachers also provide important social modeling and lessons for their students. Students are in positions to observe how teachers manage conflicts in positive and productive ways. Students learn about boundaries and social expectations through their experiences in classes and interactions with teachers. Students learn self-regulation skills and habits through the routines, expectations, and structures teachers construct and manage. Teachers help students navigate conflicts and relationships with others who come from diverse backgrounds and cultures and who may hold different values and lived experiences. The list could go on, but the point is that teachers play a key role in teaching, modeling, and coaching key skills and behaviors that are crucial to the success of individuals and the functioning and survival of our society.
Further, teachers are key models for and imparters of the importance of values, courage, and commitment. Honesty, respect, fairness, responsibility, and compassion are universal values embraced worldwide. Society cannot succeed without them. Yet, many families lack the capacity to teach, model, and reinforce these values for their children. Fortunately, teachers build and reinforce these values in countless ways, from how students engage in learning, to managing their work and other responsibilities, to how they interact with other students. Students also see models of courage through investments teachers make in students who are reluctant to invest in themselves. They see the advocacy of teachers on behalf of students who have no one else to advocate for them. And students see the enduring commitment of teachers as the year unfolds and teachers continue to work, struggle, and persist even when others may choose to give up on students, and students may even give up on themselves.
Comparisons to utilities such as electricity, water, and heat may seem awkward. Yet, it is difficult to imagine the survival of our society without teachers to inspire, teach, coach, and nurture the most important values, skills, and relationships upon which we depend and treasure.