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The myth of the irrelevant teacher

Research consistently shows that teachers are the No. 1 in-school factor for student success.

I had my “Holy crap, I’m a role model!” ah-ha moment a few years ago, when a student’s parent stopped by my classroom during quiet reading time, and commented that I was a good role model because I was reading along with my class.

Holly Kragthorpe

I went home that day feeling great, and called my mother, who always enjoys hearing about my proud teaching moments. But on that day, my mom was incredulous. “How could you not know that everything teachers do is important?” she asked.

The question gave me pause, because, to be honest, I sometimes feel like I spend much of my day on meaningless tasks. Wipe down tables. Check email. Sharpen pencils. Call the office. Do hall duty.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the to-dos and forget why I’m a teacher.

My mom’s question also gave me pause because there are countless factors of a kid’s life outside of my control. In fact, many argue that we can’t improve our schools and close our achievement gaps until we address these factors first, until we eradicate poverty and engage more parents.

Popular narrative misses mark

It’s easy to feel irrelevant when the dominant narrative too often says there’s not much teachers can do, here and now, to help students achieve.

But, as usual, the most popular narrative misses the mark. As usual, my mom is right. Sure, it takes a village to raise a child, and sure, we teachers wipe down lots of tables and sharpen lots of pencils. But we are relevant. We are critical to our students’ learning.

Fortunately it didn’t take 10 years to have that ah-ha moment: I am responsible for my students’ learning. I vividly recall early on in my teaching career when I was lamenting about the number of students who weren’t passing my ninth-grade civics class. I was figuratively hit upside the head when someone asked me what I planned to do about it.

Taking responsibility for learning

Back then I had no idea what to do; I only knew that I was working my tail off and couldn’t work any harder. Luckily, my colleague talked me through some strategies for differentiating my instruction and monitoring progress on certain skills. It wasn’t about working harder; it was about taking responsibility for the learning in my classroom and working smarter.

Research consistently shows that teachers are the No. 1 in-school factor for student success. As a teacher, the only thing I really have control over is how I teach. That’s why I have to focus on that role and the many little tasks that come along with it, from wiping down tables to reading along with my students.

Because it’s all relevant. It all adds up to student learning, to kids going home feeling excited about school, to our public education system getting stronger.

Recognition and accountability

We need the dominant narrative to change, from one that downplays teachers to one that elevates us. We need to be treated as professionals, to have high standards, constant feedback and built-in time for collaboration with our peers. We need to be recognized — and held accountable — for our results with kids.

More than anything, we need society — and not just my mom — to help all teachers know from Day 1 that their work is important. We need teachers to feel empowered, hopeful and filled with possibility.

Holly Kragthorpe teaches seventh-graders at Ramsey Middle School in Minneapolis, where she is a union steward for Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, a school captain for Educators 4 Excellence and a teacher policy fellow for MinnCAN.


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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 12/03/2014 - 02:53 am.


    Holly, thanks for reminding us that teachers can have a huge positive impact…not solving every problem a student has, but in making a dramatic positive difference.

  2. Submitted by John Egekrout on 12/03/2014 - 01:50 pm.


    If research shows that teachers are the #1 in-school factor for student success, why is it that the further away you get from the classroom and kids, the higher your salary is?

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