Appreciating Teachers By Supporting Teachers

Would you be where you are today without the people in your life who encouraged and inspired you? If you’re like me, the answer is ‘no.’ As we celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week this week across the country and here at the Gates Foundation, the role teachers have played in my life has certainly been on my mind.

Ms. Cantrell was my kindergarten teacher. Her enthusiasm was infectious and to this day I can remember how she made me feel like I wanted to be in school and wanted to learn. To me, that is one of the most important gifts a kindergarten teacher can give a child starting their academic journey — the feeling of coming to school every day with enthusiasm and a sense of belonging.

Mr. Andahl was my high school AP calculus and computer science teacher, and probably one of the most influential figures in my academic life. His dedication to his students, and his incredible knowledge of the subjects he taught were remarkable. What I’ve come to understand over the years, though, is that while his craft was on full display for his students every day in the classroom, the magic act of engaging and pushing me and my classmates wasn’t actually magic. When we weren’t looking, Mr. Andahl — like teachers in schools across the country every day — was putting in a tremendous amount of time and effort to master the material and make it relatable.

I never saw Mr. Andahl develop his lesson plans, but I know he must have spent hours figuring out the best ways to make what we were learning feel practical. He regularly gave us real-world problems to solve and concrete examples from the world around us. It didn’t feel like we were doing things “for school.” It felt like we were engaged in important work that was preparing us for life.

Great teachers do that and so much more. The typical teacher makes around 1,500 decisions and asks roughly 350 questions in a single day — all while engaging their students deeply and being responsive to their interests. That important work deserves to be celebrated.

I have the privilege of celebrating teachers not just through personal reflections and notes (this blog is a good reminder that I need to reach out to Ms. Cantrell and Mr. Andahl!), but through my job leading the U.S. Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. As a foundation, we are honored to join several of our partners this week, including the National PTA, Educators for Excellence, Teacher2Teacher, and more in celebrating the important role teachers play in students’ lives and the difference they’ve made for each and every one of us. But appreciation is just one expression of gratitude. Another is ongoing support that carries over into next week and beyond.

Behind every single student who succeeds in this country is a teacher — and often several — whose selfless dedication, professionalism, and passion make that success possible. This truth has been central to our work in K-12 education at the Gates Foundation, and continues to guide us. What has evolved over time is how we work to support teachers and where we think we, as a foundation, can make the biggest impact.

For example, we’ve learned a lot over the years about the importance of school-level practices, such as school leadership and curriculum, that impact teachers on a day-to-day basis and can either help or hinder instructional effectiveness. Teachers remain critical to our work and to student success overall, but they obviously don’t work in a vacuum. That’s why — as Bill Gates announced last year — our K-12 strategy is evolving to focus more directly on schools, as that’s where the action of teaching and learning happens.

We have seen that excellent schools — and leaders who focus on continuous improvement grounded in data and evidence — can drive dramatic improvements in student outcomes. Because that work is very hard to do in isolation, we’re investing in networks that can bring several schools together to learn from each other and from other experts. The goal of school networks is to provide the conditions necessary for schools to improve — where principals and teachers have the data, the time, and the space to learn about how their approaches are working. Teachers deserve to teach in well-run schools that empower them to bring their talent and creativity into the classroom each and every day. And networks can help schools learn from other schools as they work together to share best practices.

We’ve also learned about the kind of supports teachers value. They want, for instance, high-quality, coherent teaching materials that help them address the various learning needs of each of their students and that are aligned to high standards. That’s why we’re building on the work we’ve done to support the development of high-quality, aligned curriculum. We want teachers at every grade level in secondary schools to have access to great choices in English, math, and science curricula. With great curricular options, teachers can focus less on hunting for good materials and more on adapting materials and being creative about the best ways to engage their students. And we’re hoping to learn more from the school networks we’ll be working with about how best to align high-quality curriculum and professional development so that they are connected and effective for both teachers and students.

Finally, we are also continuing to make investments in teacher and school leader preparation. Teachers deserve to know that they are ready to make a difference for their students on Day One, and research shows that too many teachers feel like their own preparation was inadequate. Fortunately, strong programs are demonstrating promising approaches to increasing a pipeline of diverse, effective faculty that understand the challenges faced by students in the districts they serve. It’s progress that is long overdue.

Whether it’s preparing teachers heading into the classroom, encouraging stronger instructional systems and materials for teachers, or getting smarter about the kind of ongoing professional development teachers need to help students reach high standards, we make investments in teachers because we know teachers make the difference for students. We believe that all students deserve the kind of high-quality education that will help them be socially and economically mobile, and that kind of opportunity isn’t possible without the important work of teachers.

So, I want to join my colleagues in thanking all of the teachers — including Ms. Cantrell and Mr. Andahl — who work day in and day out to ensure that all students realize their dreams.