By Jamie Zibulsky
Today is World Teachers’ Day. What is World Teachers’ Day, you ask? It is “a day [first celebrated in 1994 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] devoted to appreciating, assessing, and improving the educators of the world.” This internationally recognized day commemorates teachers around the globe and their commitment to children and learning. As I began thinking about this day and its significance, it occurred to me that the days we have set aside to celebrate the contributions of particular groups of people – days like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Administrative Assistant’s Day – are days dedicated to acknowledging how much these groups of people do throughout the year, generally for children who take them for granted. (And yes, I do think that is how many admin assistants might explain their jobs as well!) But, as I thought more deeply about why we go out of our way to honor these groups of people, I realized that we set these days aside to focus on those roles and professions that provide one with the opportunity to change the lives of others. Celebrating World Teachers’ Day gives us all a chance to reflect on the incredible and crucial role that teachers play in the lives of children and the adults they become.
It is likely not a surprise to you to hear that teachers matter. Studies have shown that having a strong teacher, even for one school year, can lead to lasting academic and social performance gains. Researchers have demonstrated that, for children with social or behavioral difficulties, having a nurturing teacher can serve as a protective factor that mitigates the effect of their problems on learning and peer relationships.
There are more different and wonderful ways that teachers matter than I can discuss here, so I will limit myself to talking about the importance of teachers for language and literacy development. Becoming literate is arguably the most important academic task a child will tackle during childhood. Being able to successfully decode and comprehend written information allows a child access not only to stories, but also to informational text (for example, periodicals and biographies, as well as science, social studies, and math textbooks). Becoming literate, and learning to read, then, is an avenue for finding out more about the world around us, and a doorway into new worlds, where we can learn about the ways that other people think and act.
Teachers help children with every step of this process. In preschool and kindergarten, it is vitally important for children to engage in word play – to sing songs, listen to and make up rhymes, and begin to identify the individual sounds in words. Through reading books to young children, teachers introduce them to unfamiliar vocabulary words they would never hear in casual conversation, and prime them to comprehend what they will read independently in later years. Most importantly, great teachers help young pre-readers and readers discover a love of literature. As children move up to first grade and beyond, teachers help them make sense of the tricky features of the English language by helping them break its code and pair together letters and sounds, recognize word patterns, and spell with accuracy. For the majority of children, for whom learning to read is a fairly arduous process, having teachers who help them become persistent learners smooths this path. Eventually, this hard work pays off, when a child can independently select a book he knows will be interesting to him, read it on his own, and then talk with others about the meaning of the text. This journey to reading success takes many years and requires that children receive ongoing, responsive, and personally tailored support – truly, every teacher who helps a child become a reader deserves recognition.
And, on days like World Teachers’ Day, they fortunately get that recognition. The thanks, and the reminder that teaching changes lives, of course comes at other times, too. And it is perhaps those unexpected moments of awareness that are most precious to teachers. I remember when my mother, a career elementary school teacher, received a letter from a student who had been in her third grade class when she herself was 31 years old. The former student, when he wrote this letter, was older than she had been when she taught him (as he mailed the letter about 24 years later). In it, he told her that he had become a writer, and explained that his confidence in his abilities stemmed from the fact that she had often encouraged him in his attempts to write, once remarking on one of his assignments, “I’ll be reading your book someday!”. He told her then, decades later, that he and his family had looked back on that assignment and her statement many times over the years, and that he was about to publish his first book after years of working as a journalist. The language and literacy skills she helped him develop many years earlier helped launch his career, and her belief that he could be a successful learner and writer likely aided him in facing the edits, critiques, and rejections that are part and parcel of being a writer. I suspect that each of us can think of one teacher, or a few teachers, who has had a similarly strong impact on our own lives, often by teaching us to read or, years after we had learned, teaching us that reading can actually be fun. If that is the case for you, does that teacher know how much he or she changed your life? If not, take the opportunity to say thank you today. If we really consider all the thanks owed to the educators of the world, we might be inclined to say that their work is priceless…just like the heartfelt cards that they receive from former students. There is no better way to say thank you to a teacher than by displaying the literacy skills he or she painstakingly taught you!
Jamie Zibulsky, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University and directs the school’s MA/Certification program in School Psychology. She is co-author, with Dr. Anne Cunningham, of Book Smart: How to Support and Develop Successful, Motivated Readers. As a school psychologist, she focused on collaborating with teachers and parents to support children’s reading acquisition. Her current research focuses on the interaction between early reading skills and behavioral development, as well as teacher professional development efforts in the area of literacy.
Image credit: Children in a classroom, via Wikimedia Commons.