By Peggy Wuenstel – This blog post pales in comparison to the impact that my friend and colleague Claudia Felske has had with her powerful open letter to Scott Walker.
I salute her courage, her passion, and her skill with words. It is a time when words may matter if we join voices and join forces. I intend to do so.
It seems every message that comes out of our state capital lately that relates to education puts me and my colleagues on the defensive. This may actually be by design. Teachers know that controlling the conversation means controlling the outcomes. We hear that the system is broken from these voices at the same time that our local schools consistently get high marks from the parents in their communities.
The latest conversation is centering on how teachers will be licensed in Wisconsin, and how anyone with a college degree should be able to be issued credentials to teach in Wisconsin schools. My first reaction was “What problem are we trying to solve here?” I have participated in multiple new staff interviews and we have had to wade through nearly 200 resumes of licensed teachers to find the best candidate.
Most of the universities that I have had relationships with have mechanisms in place whereby work experience and other preparation can be evaluated and result in the awarding of credits leading to a teaching license. The areas where shortages occur, Science, Tech, Engineering and Math (STEM) would have a difficult time luring qualified professionals away from their private sector jobs and paychecks. All that assumes that these wanna-be teachers have the same soft skills that are needed to be successful in the job. At a time when the rigor of teacher education program is increasing, with greater documentation, video portfolios and programs that often take more than the traditional four years to complete, it is a twin attack to change the steepness of this climb while offering another group a ride on the ski-lift to the top of the hill.
This got me wondering about whether teaches are born or made. The annual reading of Kohl Teacher Fellowship applications added boxcars to this train of thought. These people seem born to what they do, but they take preparation and ongoing development very seriously. They are born and made, destined and developed, meant and molded. Then the analogy factory kicked in and I came to see Teachers as Diamonds.
Teachers are born, discovered, unearthed. They start with the same basic materials as all other professionals. But they are developed into something new, something that it might have been easy to miss. Like diamonds, they are cut, polished, shaped, and honed. What we take away is as important as what we are continually adding. The best of both are multi-faceted, reflecting the light around them. When conditions are right, and they operate in a supportive environment, one filled with light and offering a stable place to work, they can cast a differentiated rainbow spectrum in their classes. Both diamonds and teachers are the hardest, toughest substances on earth. We come from humble beginnings, some experiencing the right conditions, warmth, time, and yes, pressure to transform into something rare and beautiful. My selection as one of the four Wisconsin Teachers of the Year allowed me to join an amazing group of educators. It was the setting for the stone I had become, and a way to bring attention to the wonderful teachers that fill Wisconsin schools.
But not every diamond is destined for the classroom, and certainly not every college-educated person is fit for that role. Diamonds are needed for abrasives, cutting tools, and phonograph needles. They conduct electricity or insulate depending on how they are used. Industrial diamonds are those that cannot be used as gems. Large diamonds are used in tools and drilling bits like those at your dentist’s office, to cut glass, rock, and small stones. Small diamonds, also known as dust or grit, are used for cutting and polishing stone and ceramic products. They are now making their way into beauty creams and preparations. They serve many roles, but they are not, and never should be interchangeable.
The way we employ teachers and diamonds have also changed over time. Diamond windows made from thin diamond membranes are used to cover openings in lasers, x-ray machines, and vacuum chambers. Diamond speaker domes enhance the performance of high quality speakers. They are used to deflect heat and friction. Diamond dust covers those things we need to be very durable and able to withstand outside friction. There are times when teachers feel like they need diamond armor. We are being asked to do things and defend ourselves in ways that most of us have never dreamed of.
Most painfully, we are being told that our life’s work is nothing special, that anyone can do it, and would likely be willing to do it for less. The diamond market is in freefall.
One of the major ways that diamonds differ from teachers is in the way we as a society value them. Diamonds are among the most precious of commodities on the earth. A good teacher should be afforded the same level of respect, and tossing handfuls of cubic zirconium stones into the mix does not seem to be an effective or honorable way to increase the brilliance, fire, and permanence that the jewel box full of Wisconsin teachers provides. Shine on!