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To get better schools, nurture better teachers, panel says

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 15, 2011 - How can American schools help guarantee that they have the best teachers possible?

A panel that addressed the question after a showing of a movie on the plight of teachers had a somewhat paradoxical answer: Make it tougher to become a teacher and easier to stay.

The panelists were reacting to the case studies featured in the film "American Teacher, shown Wednesday at the Missouri History Museum, sponsored by the Gateway Center for Giving. But they also were answering based on their own experiences in education.

Minnie Phillips, who has retired after a long career teaching English in Webster Groves and at John Burroughs -- and who said she is still in denial that she's not in the classroom -- told of how she grew up in southeast Missouri and knew from the age of 4 she wanted to teach.

As the first African American in her town to graduate from college, she faced a raft of obstacles on her way to a degree, but she said her passion to learn and help others to learn kept her going.

"I have been privileged to teach," Phillips said, "and I am an advocate of teaching. Teaching for me is that vital part of who we are. Teachers are the guardians of the future."

To get the best and brightest to see education as a career, she said, the system has to do more than just encourage them academically. It has to help them financially, with more scholarship aid and easier terms for paying back student loans.

"It's a crying shame that we have teachers who have so much debt, they can't afford to stay in a profession they love," Phillips said.

Money played a significant role in the discussion by Phillips and her fellow panelists: Melanie Adams, who is on the staff of the history museum and one of the three members of the Special Administrative Board of the St. Louis Public Schools, and Kelly Garrett, executive director for the KIPP charter school in St. Louis.

Noting the fact cited in the movie that someone could make more money selling cell phones than becoming a teacher, they said larger salaries would be nice, but they wouldn't solve all of the problems that teachers face.

Garrett said that partnerships with businesses could help schools gain not only financial support but the community backing they need to succeed. Adams pointed out that working with other agencies that deal with children can also help magnify the effect that schools have.

"So many times," she said, "a lot of students don't have the same background to participate in after-school activities, and that's where learning can take place."

Noting that the city schools had to cut back their summer school to just 19 days this year, she said other places for kids needed to be brought in on that decision.

"What are they going to do the other days?" Adams asked. "Where are they going? Did we tell anyone else we were going to do that?"

As far as making education a more respected profession, Adams played off of the discussion about making teacher's lives more comfortable financially by making it more rigorous for them academically.

"Instead of making it easier to become a teacher," she said, "I'd make it more difficult. By making it easier, we're watering down the profession. We don't do that with doctors. We don't do that with anything else we consider a profession."

She also stressed the need for more collaboration among teachers, so that the good ones can take the time to show newcomers the best path to high achievement.

"If we have teachers in the classroom that are getting results," Adams said, "why don't we use those teachers to work with their peers and share how they are getting those results."

In the end, the panelists said, it comes down to whether those who are in charge of schools match their rhetoric about the importance of teaching with their actions.

"The best schools always want the best teachers, and we have to pay for them for education to improve," said Phillips. "We have to have that as a top priority.

"We sometimes say we have to have the best printer or the best copying machine, or maybe we have an Olympic-sized swimming pool or other things that show well. But unless we have the best teachers we can have, I think it's going to be difficult."

"We can say that education is important, that education should be valued, all we want," Adams added, "But I don't think that is what we are showing our kids. Until that changes, it is going to be really hard to convince them it's important to read and write and become an educated citizen."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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