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Special Edition


After I published my column last week about the important role that teachers play in our society, the Oprah Winfrey Show aired a two-part program about the crisis in American Schools. As a public service, I am re-running this column as a special edition that includes quotes from Oprah and her guests from her special report: "American Schools in Crisis".

Why should someone become a teacher

Selected Quotes from Oprah

Selected excerpts from Bill and Melinda Gates

The High Cost of Dropping Out

Pioneering Solutions for Education


Being a public school teacher is certainly one of the most challenging careers, but it is absolutely the most important profession there is. After all, without teachers, there wouldn't be any other professions!

As a teacher, you create the foundation for your students upon which they will build the rest of their lives. You are not only influencing the future of your own students, but you are affecting the collective future of all of humanity for generations to come. You may not be able to see the long-term affect that you have on your students, but you are writing on the pages of who they believe they are, what they believe they are capable of, and who they will choose to be and become. This will determine what they choose to contribute to the world, which will have an impact on shaping the world of tomorrow for all of us.

We each touch and affect countless others throughout the course of a lifetime. Everything we say, feel and do has a ripple effect that influences the present and the future of the collective consciousness on Earth. As a teacher, you have the ability to have a profound impact on your students' lives in the present and far into the future. Think back on the teachers you had in your youth, and think of the ones that had the greatest impact on your life, both positively and negatively. How did they help shape your ideas about yourself and about the world? Did they contribute to your self-esteem, or to your self-doubts?

Being a teacher takes great patience, strength, courage, stamina, compassion, intelligence, humor, kindness, caring, heart, generosity, etc. It often involves a great deal of self-sacrifice as well, because unfortunately, our present society greatly undervalues this most noble of professions. Those who choose a career of being a teacher do so knowing that they will face great challenges with little financial reward. You must therefore find the rewards of this career in other ways, by knowing that you are giving your students the tools with which they can succeed at life.

Our present educational system in North America, and in other parts of the world, is antiquated and stale, leaving most students and teachers feeling uninspired. Memorizing facts for tests is not learning. Knowledge is a living, growing thing, and in order to truly learn, the mind must be engaged with passion and interest. The ideal teaching environment is one in which the students are able to think, ask questions, and explore the relevance that the information has in real life, and the impact it may have on their own lives. Young people must know why it is important for them to know what is being taught to them, otherwise it will simply feel like a waste of time, and they will be bored and disinterested.

In North America, we have developed a terrible apathy toward education, and many students feel that school is not "cool". In Africa, children are begging to have an opportunity to go to school, because they know that education is the key to the future. Oprah Winfrey recognizes how important education is: she honors teachers everywhere as unsung heroes, and has been funding the building of schools in Africa because she believes that education and knowledge empower people to create a more successful life.

In our present North American school system, being in a classroom can be very tiring and draining for both the teachers and the students. As a teacher, you keep giving energy continually to your students, but if nothing is coming back to you, it can feel demoralizing and even depressing, which can lead to burnout. It is important for you as a teacher to find ways to keep you and your students motivated and inspired.

Most people do not realize the full impact that teachers have on students. Teachers have the ability to support a person's self-esteem, or to destroy it. Many young people may be experiencing devastating pain at home, either physically, emotionally, mentally or even spiritually, so school may be the only place where they can receive support and encouragement. This is particularly true of "bad" kids, who are often suffering greatly at home, and as a result, they begin to live down to other people's expectations of them. If they are labeled as "bad", then they will feel "bad" and will do "bad" things because that is who they have come to believe they are.

As a teacher, you can foster and encourage your students (and yourself) to have a strong desire to succeed in school, and in life. The ideal classroom environment is one that inspires co-operation, rather than competition. In life, as each one wins, we all win, because the joy of one raises the vibration of the collective consciousness for us all. We have a situation in schools today, particularly in public schools, where everyone wants to be the same, and no one wants to stand out. Therefore, we must try to encourage them all to be outstanding!

One of the ways you can do this is to encourage your students to be stars. This can be challenging with older students because they will act like everything is stupid and they don't care, but they really do care. You can create a board with the name of everyone in your class, including yours, and have gold stars that you can stick on the board next to each person's name as they accomplish any positive achievement, including teamwork and positive effort. Although you may have to pay for this out of your own pocket, it is very inexpensive and will repay great rewards for all concerned. Perhaps the students can even give stars to each other, to you, and to themselves for any positive accomplishment. You can give stars out for grades, but also for class participation, for effort, for improvement, for attitude, for citizenship, for extra credit, etc.

You could even further motivate the students by having a "play day" or "pizza day" when the class collectively gets a certain number of stars. You don't have to pay for this yourself, you can have a collection jar where the students can contribute their own money to such a reward celebration. Ideally, you want to make teaching fun and rewarding for you, and have learning be fun and rewarding for your students, so be as creative as possible.

Rewards don't have to require money, but feeling like a star can create infinite rewards for life. You can encourage your students to make a star chart for themselves at home, or better yet (with their parents' permission), to put gold stars on their mirror whenever they have a sense of accomplishment or overcoming challenges - that way they can start to see themselves as a star on a daily basis. I would recommend this for you as well, and for everyone.

A positive, inspiring and encouraging environment has infinite positive ripple effects. You can make your classroom into an oasis where you and your students can all feel good about yourselves. This will create positive energy that keeps growing, which will energize you instead of draining you. If you inspire your students, you will feel inspired, and vice versa. Likewise, if you motivate them, you will feel motivated, and vice versa.

Encourage your students to work together and to be self-motivated, so that all the energy is not just coming from you. Foster group work and group discussion, where each person has a sense of making an important contribution to the whole. The more fun and interesting you can make it for you and your students, the more you will all put into it, so you will all get more out of it and want to be there.

As a teacher, you are the cornerstone of our society, and you make the greatest contribution there is to changing and affecting our world. I applaud you, and everyone in your profession. May you be inspired to inspire, motivated to motivate, and encouraged to encourage.

- Grace

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Selected Quotes from Oprah

"Just 20 years ago, American students were among the best in the world, routinely coming in first in test results. Now, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, students in the richest country on earth are in 24th place in math. That's behind Canada, Germany, France, Korea…but also smaller, poorer countries like Poland, Hungary and Slovakia."

"I've often said that I believe that education is freedom," Oprah says. "And if it is freedom, indeed, then we are literally imprisoning America's future. We all have to demand more from our local, our state, our national leaders…and more from ourselves as citizens, because this is a crisis. And this crisis is going to affect every single one of us."

excerpts from Bill and Melinda Gates

Bill and Melinda Gates point to an obsolete education—built for the industrial age, not the digital age—as a keystone to the problem. The Gates Foundation pointedly asks, "What good is it for kids to graduate in 2006 from a school system that was designed for 1956?"

In this out-of-date structure, Bill says that some students do not value their own education. "Millions of kids are dropping out," Bill says. "Of minorities, half drop out. Overall it's about a third."

Good schools aren't judged solely on reading, writing and arithmetic anymore—Bill and Melinda's foundation has reinvented the "three Rs."

"It was all about this rigorous curriculum that was relevant to the children's lives so they stayed interested, and they had a relationship with at least one, if not several, adults in the school," Melinda says. "Those were our 'three R's'—rigor, relationships and relevance."

"We have a national crisis going on. We want to get into the psyche of America so everyone understands that there has to be a national dialogue," Bill Gates says. "The Stand Up campaign stands for awareness. We want to demand that all of our high schools graduate kids who are ready for college, work, and beyond."

The High Cost of Dropping Out

A Time magazine report highlights some disturbing facts. One million American students drop out of school every year—that's one every nine seconds!

One in three students in the middle-class town of Shelbyville, Indiana, won't graduate. "I think [when] the average person thinks dropout, they think urban, they think minority. But that's just not the case," says Shelbyville schools superintendent David Adams. "If you think that you don't have a dropout problem in your community because you're a middle class community, you're kidding yourself." Principal Tom Zobel says his mission is to keep students invested in their education. "They don't want to go through the effort to get the high school diploma because they don't see a need for it," he says.

Russlynn Ali, director of the Education Trust West who has been fighting to improve schools for 16 years, warns that factory jobs won't be around much longer. Many companies are moving their factories to foreign countries and outsourcing jobs because American workers are lacking basic job skills.

Poorly trained workers and high school dropouts are products of the "cycle of low expectations" in America's public schools, Russlynn says. "Students rise to expectations, and they fall to expectations."

According to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a high school dropout is eight times more likely to end up in jail than a high school graduate.

Lisa Ling went a San Francisco jail to find out what can happen to children when America's educational system fails them. At this prison facility, 75 percent of the inmates are dropouts. In America, 80 percent of inmates have a reading level between third and seventh grade; 90 percent are parents.

Each year, California spends more than $34,000 to keep one prisoner behind bars. That's three times more than the state spends on each student enrolled in public school per year.

Pioneering Solutions for Education

St. Hope Academy
Kevin Johnson, former NBA player for the Phoenix Suns, returned to his hometown of Sacramento, California, to make a difference. To combat the influences of drugs, jail and unemployment on kids, Kevin opened an after-school program called St. Hope Academy designed to keep high-risk kids off the streets.

In this new role, Kevin's biggest concern is getting his students on track to go to college. "You know what [kids] want more than anything? They just want to feel special," he says. "They just want somebody to know their name. They want somebody to take some time with them, ask them where they're going to college."

"Our work is not just about high school and education," he says. "It's about transformation. Education is supposed to be the great equalizer for us all."

KIPP Schools
In Washington, D.C., CNN's Anderson Cooper found a school that has turned students' lives around. "Most of these kids were two grades behind when they transferred here from some of the lowest performing schools in the country," he says. "Now they're outscoring every public middle school in Washington."

The school is called KIPP—short for Knowledge Is Power Program—part of a growing network of schools around the country. It's the brainchild of Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, two Ivy League grads and Teach for America alumni who thought they could do a better job than the public school system.

Now with 46 KIPP schools across the country, they're out to prove that they are right. "We felt like we could make learning fun and we could get kids to come to school and they would not want to go home," Dave says.

Mike and Dave say they got the idea for this style of learning from a teacher named Harriett Ball whom they met in an inner city public school. "Harriet Ball was kind of like a rock star of teaching in the elementary school I was in," Dave says. "She came into my room and in one day—in 45 minutes—taught what I had failed to teach in three months."

Mike and Dave say that KIPP has a "whatever it takes" philosophy. "Every day the kids come to school with 101 reasons why they're set up for failure, which means we need at least 101 solutions for how to set them for success day in and day out," Mike says.

The founders of KIPP say the "blame game" is too much of a default among the parties in education. "Parents blaming teachers, teachers blaming parents, colleges blaming high schools, high schools blaming middle schools, middle schools blaming elementary schools," Dave says. "Until we all unite around what works and stop accepting failure, we're not going to solve it."

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If you ever get a chance
to see a rebroadcast of this Oprah program,
I hope you will tell everyone you know about it.

"Responsibility is power. You have the power of choice.
You are always responsible for the choices you make and the actions you take."
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Special Edition: "WHY SHOULD SOMEONE BECOME A TEACHER" and excerpts from Oprah's "American Schools in Crisis" .  mPath focus: become a teacher
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