Even today, I can remember the name of pretty much every teacher I’ve ever had. In high school I had a fantastic chemistry teacher named Daniel Morris. He gave me a hard time and told me that I was just getting by. I always did well in analytical chemistry, but I hated all those pipettes and test tubes in the lab. He knew that, and he still managed to get me into the lab to do experiments—and I had a much better understanding because of it. I can trace a lot of my love of science to the demands he put on me.
I thought about Mr. Morris while I was watching a preview of TEACH, the excellent documentary airing tomorrow night on CBS that follows four teachers over the course of a school year. (Melinda and I gave some money to help get it produced.)
Both Melinda and I feel lucky to have had amazing teachers who inspired us. We think every child deserves the same thing, because every child deserves a great education. A great teacher can change a student’s life, and that’s not just some saying on a bumper sticker. There's ample evidence that teaching is the single biggest in-school factor in a student’s achievement. It’s more important than class size, curriculum, or any other element at the school.
Through the foundation’s work on education over the past 13 years, I’ve come to appreciate what a tough job teachers have. Their classrooms are often crowded. There’s almost never enough money. Some of their students are already behind at the start of the year. So it is amazing to visit a classroom and watch a really effective teacher overcome all the challenges and reach every student, whether they’re far behind or way ahead of the class or right in the middle. It makes you want to know what makes that teacher so good and how we can help more teachers be as effective.
That question is especially urgent now. In the coming decade, about half of today’s teachers will retire. Losing all that expertise and experience is obviously tough. But it’s also a great opportunity to bring in a new generation of bright, talented young people and give them the support they want and deserve. That includes creating a system where they get useful feedback on their practice. It also means listening to their ideas about what works in the classroom (and what doesn’t). For example, teachers increasingly want to incorporate apps and Web sites into their work with students, but they say they’re overwhelmed by all the options. So we recently launched Graphite, a site that helps them connect with the best educational technology.
TEACH gives you a good idea of how hard teachers work and the challenges they’re up against. You see each teacher trying out new ideas and getting coached. You get to know some of their students too. Some of them face pretty long odds. It’s very moving, and by the end, I was really pulling for each of the teachers and their kids. I couldn’t wait to see how things turned out for them.
I hope lots of people watch the documentary and gain some appreciation for what it takes to be a great teacher. Maybe it will even inspire a few young people to become teachers. If they do, they will be signing up for one of the most important jobs in the world. They will deserve our support, gratitude, and admiration.