Our Democracy Depends on Teachers

Teachers sitting in a meeting

Editor’s note: This essay was submitted to AACTE days before Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation of New York, died on April 15, 2021. It is from his last writing project and focuses on a subject he held dear — teaching and learning. This is an edited excerpt of an essay published in the Spring 2021 edition of Carnegie Reporter magazine.

On Teacher Appreciation Day and every day, teachers play a central role in shaping our society.

America has always been and will always be a work in progress. Every generation has contributed and must contribute to that ongoing progress.

We all agree that education is imperative to the future of our nation and necessary for the strength of our democracy, yet we often overlook the central role of teachers. They are vital to the aspirations and progress of our society, deserving both material and moral support as well as respect and appreciation.

The psychologist Erik Erikson (1902–1994) once remarked that human beings are the “teaching species.” I believe this to be true. I also believe teaching is a noble profession, perhaps the noblest of all. It is not just a profession or a vocation, it is a calling. Thus, our teachers bear an awesome moral, social, civic, and historical responsibility in teaching new generations and, hence, creating our future. During the best of times, teaching is hard work. In current times, it is far more difficult.  

As our frontline education professionals during the pandemic, teachers have been forced to bear the brunt of several challenges: a massive overnight shift to “remote teaching,” forcing them to adopt new tools and skills, sometimes with little support or training; the health risks of in-person instruction; decreased online attendance and participation by students; large-scale learning loss; and inconsistent access to technology and learning assistance at home for disadvantaged students.

Amid these profound disruptions, we have seen an enhanced appreciation of teachers as families themselves have experienced the challenges of daily at-home learning. Nevertheless, teachers have also experienced animosity and criticism. They have been caught in a dilemma between reopening schools at the risk of their and their familiesʼ health and well-being, and closing schools, which denies education to our children and challenges the very essence of a teacher’s obligation.

It is in our classrooms, virtual and in-person, that the future of our society is created on a daily basis. Therefore, it is essential that student learning be carried out with the guidance of teachers who are well educated, well trained, and knowledgeable about their respective fields of expertise. In addition, teachers must be committed to the idea that no student can be written off as mediocre or inconsequential. All students must be given the opportunity to succeed in their quest for knowledge.

Student learning begins with the quality of the education and training that teachers themselves receive in many of our universities and colleges. Our public education system needs to be revamped to better support teachers’ education, knowledge, and skills. State and federal authorities must focus on improving teaching and making that the cardinal element of school reform. In my opinion, higher education leaders must recognize their responsibilities and opportunities in what de facto is a PreK–16 education system. The neglect of PreK–12 education is detrimental to the quality of higher education in the United States and also to equal opportunity.

In the words of historian Henry Adams (1838–1918): “Teachers affect eternity. They never know where their influence ends.” Each of us bears the imprint of a teacher who has had a major influence on our lives. My first teacher was my Armenian grandmother, an illiterate peasant yet wise disciplinarian, who raised me in Tabriz, Iran, where I was born. My life was changed thanks to a series of subsequent teachers who instilled in me the joy of learning and the value of knowledge as a lifetime companion. All of my teachers taught me, guided me, and assisted me in making the right choices and wise decisions. It is because of them that I was able to make the transition from being a student to becoming a teacher myself.

The quality of teacher education was of paramount concern to Andrew Carnegie, the founder of Carnegie Corporation of New York, the philanthropic foundation where I serve as president. He believed, as I believe, that teachers are among the greatest resources American democracy can rely on to keep it strong, vibrant, and self-renewing. After all, a teacher does not merely instill an education, but rather, given adequate supports, provides avenues of discovery that enrich the lives of our students for the betterment of us all.

For 24 years, the late Vartan Gregorian (1934–2021) was president of the philanthropic foundation Carnegie Corporation of New York. He was also the past president of Brown University and The New York Public Library.

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