Why Teaching May Truly Be the World’s Most Important Career

Of all the top jobs, the impact a teacher makes is staggering.

top jobs
Studies find that the influence a teacher has is greater than you think. (Photo: kate_sept2004/Getty)
Suzi Parker is a journalist whose work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Jeanne Williams opened her students up to the world of literature in her creative writing and English classes.

She introduced me to Sylvia Plath and captivated my imagination with the romance of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. She not only taught about Greek gods and goddesses but also had us become them. I spent one class dressed in a toga as Aphrodite, explaining the goddess’s family history to the rest of the class.

 ...a teacher is estimated to have two to three times the impact of any other school factor...Mrs. Williams had met famous authors, including Norman Mailer, and I began to believe that one day I, too, could have a cocktail with a real writer. Or even become one.

Teachers, indeed, possess a great power to influence, and as studies show, they can clearly shape America’s future. They can impact how much students will ultimately earn, or prepare the next great mind to change the world. In that light, isn’t teaching truly a top career, one of the most important and influential jobs a person can have?

“Ample qualitative research shows that a single teacher can shape the course of a young person’s future, for better or worse,” says Jerusha Connor, an education professor at Villanova University. “For example, most novice teachers are quick to identify a teacher who inspired them to go into teaching and whom they hope to emulate.”

In a 2012 study, The RAND Corporation, a leading research nonprofit, found that “teachers matter more to student achievement than any other aspect of schooling.” They said, “When it comes to student performance on reading and math tests, a teacher is estimated to have two to three times the impact of any other school factor, including services, facilities, and even leadership.”

Another study from 2012, by Harvard economists Raj Chetty and John N. Friedman and Jonah E. Rockoff of Columbia, tracked 2.5 million students from the same urban school district over 20 years, from fourth grade to adulthood. The results showed that a good teacher can influence a student’s chances to attend college, earn more money, and even avoid teen pregnancy.

The data collection focused on the long-term impact of teachers based on controversial “value-added” ratings, a complicated formula that is meant to measure how much value a particular teacher adds to a student's achievement. Some say that such ratings are flawed and rely too much on standardized test scores and too little on educator input. In this case, the researchers found, “when a high VA [value-added] teacher joins a school, test scores rise immediately in the grade taught by that teacher; when a high VA teacher leaves, test scores fall.”

They also noted that replacing a teacher whose “true VA is in the bottom 5 percent with one of average quality would generate cumulative earnings gains of $80,000 per student or more than $1.4 million for the average classroom.”

If a good teacher can improve his or her students’ lives, naturally a bad teacher can have an adverse effect. Jerusha Connor points to research showing many GED seekers report leaving school because of humiliating interactions with teachers, or even a hurtful statement made by one educator.

Barack Obama perhaps said it best in 2008 when he first ran for President: “The single most important factor in determining [student] achievement is not the color of their skin or where they come from. It’s not who their parents are or how much money they have. It’s who their teacher is.”

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.

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