Everyone understands this on a personal level. We can all point to at least one important teacher who made an outsized impact on our lives. Last month I traveled to Paris for the World Teachers' Day event at UNESCO, and I learned how teachers matter enormously on a global level.
Approximately 400 educators and leaders were gathered in a large assembly room with all of the United Nations’ trimmings: microphones on every surface for attendees, a huge dais with 11 seats, headphones with controls for instant translation to French or English, and about 200 flagpoles just outside the window. I had the privilege to represent National Board Certified Teachers in the U.S., accompanying Ron Thorpe, CEO of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
At September's United Nations general assembly in New York, Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon announced the five-year Education First initiative, adding special weight to the World Teachers' Day discussion. The three goals of "Education First" are to put every child in school, to improve the quality of learning, and to foster global citizenship. With 61 million school-age children currently out of school, this means that we need 6.8 million new teachers by 2015, with over half of the need in sub-Saharan Africa.
This crisis in the developing world shaped the World Teachers' Day program, which used the slogan "Take a stand for teachers." Here are some of bite-sized takeaways from the program:
- In developing countries, the fundamental challenges are staggering. In Guinea, they are working to make sure that teachers are not homeless. They are also combing the sketchy civil service rolls to find out who in the country is actually teaching class and who is just taking money but not really teaching. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the ministry is working to reduce three-month delays in paying teachers. Both countries are also trying out incentives to entice teachers to work in remote areas.
- In the Central African Republic, class sizes average over 80 students.
- In South Africa, some teachers still have over 70 students per class. Working conditions vary enormously based on location. They are making a concerted effort to bring back retired teachers to help as expert voices. The country lacks infrastructure needed for the technology they want to bring into education.
- In the Democratic Republic of Congo, they have "harmonized" three different teacher wage brackets into one. They have ended a three-month delay for teacher pay and are starting an e-learning program for remote areas.
- According to Winsome Gordon, CEO of the Jamaica Teaching Council, Cuba is way ahead in leveraging technology for teacher development and resource sharing among educators.
- All top-performing Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development nations—countries such as Finland, Korea, Japan, Canada, and Australia—have strong teachers unions.
- Cambridge professor John Bangs: "Collaborative leadership in schools—not a principal going it alone—yields more sustainable improvement."
- Bangs also emphasized the necessity of self-efficacy in teachers. He quoted Stephen Covey: "Motivation is a fire from within. If someone else tries to light that fire under you, chances are it will burn very briefly."
- David Edwards of Education International said one unnamed (but guessable) European nation is facing a possible 30 percent austerity cut to education budgets.
- Ron Thorpe: "I have never seen such happy, self-reliant children as I did in Finland."
- French researcher Luc Ria: "Strong early-career teachers balance academic requirements with benevolence." He says that respect for human nature structures their work. Authority is understood not as force, but benevolence.
For many developing countries the basic challenges to running an education system—lack of school buildings and teaching resources, lack of teachers, teacher absenteeism, low pay for educators, bureaucratic breakdowns—are enormous. However, despite the obstacles and deficits impacting the teaching profession worldwide, there was also substantive optimism in the room.
In the U.S., we will need approximately 2 million new teachers in the next decade to fill jobs left open by attrition or retirements. We need those new teachers to be strong educators, who, as Luc Ria pointed out, can consistently blend academic requirements with benevolence towards students. This is an opportunity to infuse the teaching profession with new talent.
A version of this article previously appeared on the Huffington Post.
Education activities in classroom photo via Shutterstock