There’s no magic wand to fix our educational system. Instead, it will take exceptional teachers and approaches designed to meet the needs of all students.
That was the key message delivered by Michelle Shearer, 2011 National Teacher of the Year, in an address to more than 150 students and educators April 24. The evening program was part of a day-long series of events organized by Bryan Duff, lecturer in the Cornell Teacher Education program in the Department of Horticulture, that had Shearer working with educators and science faculty at Ithaca College in the morning and with Cornell education students in the afternoon.
“No one has a magic wand. We want a quick answer, but it’s just not that simple” she said. “The real issue is, how do we reach all students? In our country, there are pockets of excellence. And then there are pockets of great need – often separated by just a few miles. There are huge disparities in access and resources for students.”
As an Advanced-Placement Chemistry teacher, Shearer has stressed inclusion in her own classroom. She has reached out to students who have traditionally been underrepresented in scientific fields, including students with special needs and disabilities, minorities, and young women. “We’re starting to close the gender gap in some of our advanced science subjects,” she said. “We’re making progress. But the diversity of my class still does not match the diversity of my school. Our work is not finished until it does.”
This wider access does not require watering down the chemistry. Instead, teachers need to be more creative in providing academic supports to bring students up to high expectations. Social support is key, too. Teachers who know their students’ strengths and interests and make all students feel valued more effectively encourage the persistence needed to master challenging content.
That requires exceptionally talented teachers, Shearer points out. While a science major at Princeton University, she often felt pressure to “do more” than teach high school. Shearer challenged her Ithaca audiences to speak out against the biases that devalue teaching that pervade higher education and society. What could be more important and challenging than dedicating your professional life to promoting other people’s success, she asks?
“My pet peeve is when a teacher says ‘I’m just a teacher,’” said Shearer. “I suggest a simple change, and say ‘I am a teacher.’”
Shearer’s Teacher of the Year duties have taken her across the country and around the world, including China. “They’re having some of the same conversations,” she recalled. “They need great teachers too. They have a lot of people to educate.”
Teachers there didn’t want to talk about test scores, said Shearer. But they did have questions about how to encourage students to be creative thinkers and innovators. “They see the shift in the world and know that whoever can do that will have an advantage.”
Shearer also told about a new Chinese program that offers full scholarships to talented students in exchange for a 10-year commitment to teaching. “That’s quite a commitment,” she said. “We don’t have anything that matches or rivals that here.”
Co-sponsors of Shearer’s visit were the Cornell Teacher Education Program, the Ithaca College Department of Education, the Cornell Employment & Disability Institute and the Wells College Education Program.