Changing Perception from the Inside Out: An Open Letter to Public Educators

By: Rachael Brunson, M.Ed.

When asked what I do for a living, I proudly tell people that I am a teacher.   I haven’t always been proud.  There was a time when I referred to myself as “just a teacher”.   I’ve been reflecting on those “just a teacher” years and trying to pinpoint where those feelings came from. Then it dawned on me that’s how most of my colleagues referred to themselves as well.   Why the negative self image?  Part of the issue lies in the negative perception about public school educators.  It’s no wonder the public perceives our educational system as substandard with the constant scrutiny of the media and political leaders continually promising to “fix” what is wrong with education.
We can blame the media for part of the problem, but we as educators have to take some of the responsibility for how the public perceives us.  Because teachers are under an enormous amount of scrutiny, we are often on the defensive and that feeling of contention trickles out into the general public.  Jacques Barzun once said that “Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition”. It’s up to us to be change agents and to recreate our own image. We can change the public’s perception of education by applying these six premises: perception, professionalism, partnerships, publicity, pride, and positive outlook.

Perception

If yours is negative, change it.  Look for what is going well in your school.  It’s easy to get bogged down with all the minutiae of test scores, demanding parents and students who would rather be playing video games. Instead of questioning why you became a teacher in the first place, take a look around at what is going right.  Look at the other side of those very same issues.  Chances are you have evidence of learning in your classroom, parents who are supportive and students who love learning. Celebrate every little success and soon enough, you will find your thinking about teaching has changed.  If you publicly project your best image you will create your own reality.

Professionalism

Continue to learn and grow.  Teaching, like many other professions, requires ongoing professional development.   Staying stagnant is unsatisfying and will eventually lead to burn out.  Challenge yourself to learn the latest technology or try delivering instruction in a way that is unconventional. Teachers who continuously step out of the box are apt to feel excited about their work.   An often overlooked way for teachers to develop professionally is to learn about their school district and school board.  It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture in education when you are focused only on your particular classroom. Get involved with a district committee or attend a school board meeting.  The more informed you are about your district, the more connected you will feel.  A broader view will help when communicating with the public and put into perspective the big picture.

Partnerships

Form partnerships.  If you want the public to see the world class education students are receiving in your school, invite them in.  Many businesses have a fund for education that often goes untapped.  Let’s say you’re studying the water cycle and water conservation in science. Call up the local water department to see if they can give a lecture, demonstration, or better yet, a hands-on activity showing the effects of pollution on the water supply.  The students will benefit from learning from an expert and you get to learn along with them.  Seek out ways for your students to be involved in the community.  Connect acts of service to your curriculum. Identify real-world problems and allow students to come up with solutions and share those solutions with the community.  There is often a disconnect between education and the real world.  When you get your students involved in their neighborhood everyone’s perception changes for the better.   Finally, partner with your parents.  Parents want the best for their children. If they are well informed and feel part of their child’s education then a level of trust is established and they can be your greatest advocate.

Publicity

Most teachers are naturally modest.  Amazing learning is happening in classrooms across the state, but the public rarely hears about it.  Start by sharing your celebrations with your parents via email and a personalized website.  Parents want a glimpse into the classroom. Give them one by posting pictures, videos and student work.  What seems routine for us is novel for the general public. If you are doing an extraordinary project, let your district public relations department know about it.   The more you share, the more connected you will feel with parents and the community.   Often, just a small amount of effort on your part can make a world of difference in the public’s perception of your classroom and education in general.  Own the fact that you represent your school and district and do it “loud and proud”.

Pride

We’ve all heard the famous quote from Henry Adams, “A teacher affects eternity: he can never tell where his influence stops.”  Chances are you even have a coffee mug with those very words written alongside a bright red apple.  Read the quote again, but this time believe it, because it’s true. Do you have a teacher from your school years who you carry around in your heart?  YOU are that person to your students.  Be proud.  Remind yourself of the importance of your profession.  If you look at yourself as “just a teacher” then you perpetuate our poor public image.  You are a professional educator, an expert in your field.  Never lose sight of the importance of your role in society.

Positive Outlook

There is no doubt that teaching has its down side as does every profession.  You cannot focus on the negative.  As soon as you feel yourself getting bogged down, find something to celebrate. Instead of focusing on test scores or the fact that you will not see the top of your desk until the beginning of June, center your attention on your students.  Sit them down and have a share session about what they are learning.  You will feel joy replace the feeling of negativity as you listen to them.  It’s also important to surround yourself with positive and like-minded peers.  If you find yourself in a room full of crabby complainers, leave the room. Seek out the teachers and administrators who are enthusiastic about education.  It’s easy to moan and complain. It’s much more difficult, but much more rewarding, to focus your attention on what is going well.

Together, using these six principles, we can turn this around. We can change public perception of education from the inside out.

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