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In Praise of Teachers

October 6 2020 · By Clark Merkley

“I Am a Teacher, What’s Your Superpower?”

I have always looked up to and respected teachers. Most of us can look back fondly on a teacher who saw more in us than we saw in ourselves. Or a teacher who sparked an interest or passion in us and then fanned that small ember into a flame of lifelong learning. At BootUp, teachers are absolutely central to our nonprofit mission of bringing coding and computer science to all elementary students. We cannot begin to imagine the fulfillment of our nonprofit mission without them. We are extremely gratified when we see truly empowered, confident teachers bring their own love for student learning and growth to make the magic of discovery happen. I want to spend a few minutes in praise of teachers!

As a student at Wasatch Elementary in Salt Lake City, Utah, my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Donelle Dickey, was that one teacher who played such a pivotal role in my life. Mrs. Dickey was a first-year teacher when I was in her class, but she was already a truly gifted guide, who she saw in me a love of reading and a desire to learn. She gave me the support, encouragement, and genuine care I needed to fuel my commitment to further education, teaching, and service. Mrs.Dickey came along at just the right time because I had spent all of my recess hours during the entire second grade in the principal’s supply room for some playground shenanigans. I am certain I was looking for a point of stability at school, and she stepped right up to fill that need.

When Mrs. Dickey saw that I was done with my work, she gave me more to do and did not let my idle time turn into a distraction for others. She made it fun by suggesting that I was given private access to a cache of knowledge that others were not, even though I suspect she saw the individual talents in all of her students and found ways to inspire them along their paths. I thought that someday I might want to be a teacher and be that kind of person for someone else.

My dad, Dr. Wayne Merkley, was a great biology professor at Drake University for almost 40 years. As a teenager, he would invite me to work in his lab and participate in his research trips along the Des Moines River and meet and talk with his graduate students. I could hear and see the genuine affection they had for my dad and their respect for him as a source of knowledge, motivation, and fun. Many of those students were invited into our home for a meal, an evening chat, or a holiday celebration when they were away from their own families. I watched and learned about the impact a great teacher can have on others, primarily as a role model example.

When it came time for me to pursue a graduate education and select a career, I seriously considered following in my dad’s footsteps and become a professor. My dad sat me down and talked with me candidly about the realities of a college professor’s life and income potential and encouraged me to pursue a career in law or business where I could provide for a family and give my children opportunities and experiences he somehow felt he was unable to give me and my siblings. I followed his recommendations, but could never shake that desire to be a teacher. Even though I found many other ways to teach in my profession and in my community, including stints as a college instructor, I still came up unfulfilled. I longed to make a difference in the lives of others that only teachers can truly make.

In the middle of a successful legal and business career, I reflected on what I was doing to make a difference and make the world a better place. Somehow making and saving money for clients and businesses was not the kind of difference I wanted to make. It was hard to find that intrinsic motivation in monetary profit. I had served as an elected school board member in Wisconsin and seen up close the transformative power of good teachers, not only in the lives of my own children but also in many other children in the district. And I wanted to be part of that effort.

I decided to take the leap, make a dramatic career change, and applied to become a junior high teacher. It took some convincing for a principal to hire a recovering lawyer and businessman. Still, I accepted a position to teach Earth Science, Physical Science, and Algebra at Springville Junior High in Springville, Utah. I was incredibly busy with three different classes to prepare for each day and was often only a day ahead of the students and lagging behind the brightest students. I went to bed tired every day, but it was a “good tired.” I had found my groove.

From my very first day in the classroom, I knew that I was making the kind of difference I wanted to make every hour of every day. I could see the lightbulbs going off in the minds of these 8th and 9th graders; they were not very good at hiding their emotions when they finally understood or learned something new. My love for teaching grew every day, particularly as I saw the dedication and professionalism of many teachers around me. I had amazing role models and learned much more about trust in relationships than I did about pedagogy or classroom management.

However, one of the very disconcerting things about being a teacher was how others regarded other teachers and me. When I was a corporate lawyer or senior executive and let people know what I did for a living, I would see a look of respect or admiration from others. They took me seriously and wanted my opinion on a wide range of topics. When I became a teacher, it was the fulfillment of a long-held dream. I had joined the ranks of the most honorable profession in the world. I was beyond thrilled.

But now, when I told people what I did for a living, they looked disappointed and didn’t seem to have much regard for what I thought. Many parents were condescending, and others were simply rude to other teachers and me. I knew what I was doing in the classroom and I knew that I was not only setting the example for students for what a lifelong learner could look like, but also genuinely caring for them and their futures. I got all of the positive reinforcement I needed from the students, even though it was in short supply from some adults. And my respect and regard for teachers only continued to grow.

I have lived outside the United States in a country where teachers were considered some of the most accomplished in society and regarded highly. Their incomes were sufficiently high because the citizens placed great value on education and wanted the best for the rising generation. I supported that social structure and the country’s investment in children’s education because I could see the long-term benefits of investment in education during those early, formative years.

We want the best for our children; our hopes for the leaders, contributors, and community-builders of tomorrow lie safely in the hands of outstanding teachers. I have full confidence in our teachers to lead the way, even as they prepare their students for careers and lives we cannot yet imagine. Now, more than ever, teachers are asked to take on so much. In addition to traditional preparation for the subjects and students they teach, they are asked to do so in ways and on platforms they could never have imagined. As we all struggle to find our footing during a worldwide pandemic, a huge burden has fallen on our teachers, and that burden is greatly underestimated and lightly comprehended.

At BootUp, we believe in teachers, honor teachers, and know that the only way to empower our students with the 21st-century skills they need is through teachers. In the world of computer science, particularly at the elementary level, there are so many offerings, products, and solutions that seek to take teachers out of the equation. I have referred to this strategy as “teacher disintermediation,” which is a technical way of saying that many vendors or providers think it is too hard to provide professional development for teachers to bring them up to speed. Instead give teachers something that they can hand over to the students and have them learn on their own. That is an unfortunate shortcut that does not show proper respect or regard for teachers.

We know that bringing in a computer scientist from industry to an elementary classroom to teach computer science, coding, or computational thinking to young students does not work. It is too difficult for the computer scientist to not only dial in the instruction to the level of student understanding, but it is also true a classroom guest can never replace the deep relationships and rapport that teachers have cultivated with their students. In our work with elementary teachers and educational paraprofessionals at BootUp, we have seen remarkable things take place. It is much easier for a wonderful teacher to gain confidence in computer science and coding than it is for a wonderful computer scientist to become a confident and effective elementary teacher.

Take some time to reflect on your favorite, most influential teachers. Reach out to them like I reached out to Mrs. Dickey a few years ago. And thank every teacher you know for the meaningful work they are doing and offer your support to help not only during these times of trouble and challenge, but always. They are working with and shaping the most valuable assets we could ever have – our children.

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