Stephanie Stuck is a spunky high school senior who’s full of life, humor, and optimism. But it wasn’t always like that.
Growing up in a small town just south of Portland, Oregon, Stephanie barely knew her mother, and from a young age she bounced from foster home to foster home.
For much of her time in foster care, Stephanie suffered through emotional and physical abuse.
“When I was in the system, some foster parents would tell me I was dumb and stupid,” she says.
Feeling unloved and abandoned, Stephanie became severely depressed. She contemplated taking her own life.
But every time those ugly thoughts came to her, Stephanie would hear her elementary school teacher’s voice telling her she was special, smart, and loved.
“Four years ago, I was ready to kill myself,” says Stephanie, who turned 18 last week. “And I probably would have if Ms. Neerhout hadn’t inspired me to believe in myself as much as she believed in me.”
Mary Neerhout saw something special in Stephanie from her very first day in her fifth-grade class.
Stephanie was an extremely shy kid plagued by low self-esteem. So in every class, Ms. Neerhout went beyond the day’s lesson plan to show her compassion, trust, and encouragement.
Ms. Neerhout also taught Stephanie to love reading and writing, tools that became Stephanie’s means to escape and express herself during interminable years of abuse.
“She always made sure I felt smart and told me I had potential and that nothing could stop me if I stayed dedicated to learning,” said Stephanie.
That was more than seven years ago, but the lessons stuck.
Today, Stephanie, who recently received one of Stand for Children’s Beat the Odds Scholarships, is preparing to start her freshman year at Portland State University in the fall.
“I seriously wouldn’t be going to college if it wasn’t for her helping me to believe in myself and develop an enthusiasm to learn,” she says.
Stephanie could have been just another in the long line of sad statistics: a high school dropout, an addict, chronically unemployed, or even a teenage suicide. Instead, thanks to a great teacher, she’s on her way to college, a career, and a stable, productive life.
May has been Teacher Appreciation Month, a time to highlight and celebrate committed and skilled teachers like Mary Neerhout, whose skillful instruction helps students succeed academically and whose support and encouragement helps students overcome life challenges.
High school English teacher Shanna Peeples, the 2015 National Teacher of the Year (NTY), eloquently describes what it takes for teachers to help underserved students excel.
“My students, survivors of deep and debilitating trauma, have shaped the kind of teacher I am,” Peeples wrote on her NTY application. “They have taught me to never make a promise I can’t keep because so many already have learned to see the world through suspicious eyes.”
Effective teachers like Mary Neerhout and Shanna Peeples can change the life trajectories for their students. The data backs that up.
According to research by The New Teacher Project, a student who is fortunate enough to have an “irreplaceable teacher” can learn five to six additional months’ worth of math and reading compared to low-performing teachers. Additional research also shows that students who fall behind usually don’t catch up.
Harvard University Professor of Economics Raj Chetty’s research on income mobility goes a step further by suggesting that a single great teacher may improve students’ lifetime earnings by $50,000 per student or $1.4 million per class.
Chetty’s emerging research also connects the dots between students’ results on vital assessments and life outcomes: Elementary and middle school teachers who help raise their students’ standardized test scores are more likely to see their students attend college, earn higher salaries, live in better neighborhoods, see lower teenage birth rates, and save more for retirement. The study concludes that working with educators to improve the quality of teaching is not only beneficial to a student but also to society as a whole.
Notwithstanding the tremendous burdens that poverty and family breakdown place on children, it’s clear that great teachers make a critical difference and can help level the playing field for students from broken homes and/or underserved communities.
And yet, ridiculously, our public education system isn’t set up to develop, identify, reward, or retain great teachers.
Take teacher preparation. While there are notable exceptions, including Arizona State University and the nonprofit Urban Teacher Center, teacher preparation programs, too focused on theory, typically do not prepare prospective teachers for classroom success.
Take teacher evaluation and professional development. Though Washington, D.C., Denver, and Hillsborough County, Florida, have made accurate and useful teacher evaluations a priority, school districts still too often fail to accurately assess how effective their teachers are or support teachers to continually improve their craft. Two big reasons for that are principal quality isn’t anywhere near the priority it should be in our school systems, and also principals and assistant principals often supervise more than 30 teachers, making it difficult to spend the time necessary to accurately assess and effectively support teachers.
Finally, take compensation. Beyond Washington, D.C., Dallas, and a few other districts, teacher salary increases—when they happen at all—are based on years of service and degrees rather than effectiveness, responsibility, and teaching high-needs students.
So, clearly, there’s a whole lot more we need to do than appreciating teachers every May and generally.
Just think of how many more students like Stephanie could be helped if states and school districts passed common-sense policies that led to more Mary Neerhouts and Shanna Peeples teaching the students who need effective teachers the most.