Why I Believe the Critics are “Dead Wrong” about Nancie Atwell

I joined with many other educators in my surprise over Nancie Atwell’s comments on CNN after receiving the “Nobel Prize” for teaching earlier this month. Taken at face value, her comments seem strangely juxtaposed against a lifetime dedicated to the teaching profession. Which is exactly why I think her comments, and her reputation, deserve more than a knee-jerk response or sensational headline.

I have the privilege of working with high school students who are considering education as a career path. My curriculum runs the gambit from educational theorists and child development to methods for creating bulletin boards that support learning. Earlier this week we watched a TED Talk by Sir Ken Robinson (Bring On the Learning Revolution). The discussion that followed was animated yet heartbreaking. Many of my students could not remember being in a class that stressed creativity and passion as hallmarks of learning; they all remembered testing. Constantly. As our discussion progressed, students questioned what had happened to the kinds of classrooms Robinson promoted. Some asked me why anyone would even want to be a teacher if they couldn’t be creative and make learning fun (students often believe that teachers chose to make classes boring and tedious). I told them this:

Teachers are people who can’t imagine doing anything else; it’s their passion. If there’s nothing else you can ever imagine yourself doing, be a teacher. If you’re passionate about making a difference in this world, be a teacher. A passionate teacher will find ways to infuse creativity and fun into learning, even amid the demands of testing and curriculum. But if the thought of teaching doesn’t light you up – if you think it’s just a job – don’t go into education. There are more than enough teachers like that already.

Was I trying to discourage my students from becoming educators? No. But I don’t want to encourage someone to pursue a teaching career if the thought of working with children, teaching from the heart and the intellect, and making a difference in the lives of others doesn’t light them up. No matter how bright a student is, no matter the GPA, we don’t need people entering the field who aren’t on fire. Because frankly, it’s that fire that often lights our way when the horizon grows dark and ominous.

Nancie Atwell deserves a more thoughtful response than the headlines we’re seeing, headlines tying her million-dollar prize to her comment, as if fortune and fame had suddenly revealed a heretic and hypocrite in our midst.

If we weigh her remarks against her contributions, then we can’t take her words at face value only. In a nation where too many still believe that teachers do what they do “for a short work day and summers off,” we only hurt our profession if we seem to concur with public opinion that “it’s a job anyone can do.” Best and brightest” sounds good but it’s a nebulous term; what do we mean when we say it? Of course we want educators who know their content well. But what we really need are teachers who are on fire, who are so passionate about education and dedicated to children that nothing – not testing, CCSS, nor politics – can sway them from their course.

I don’t’ believe Atwell was trying to discourage anyone from becoming a teacher. I believe she was acknowledging the facts. Our profession suffers from a 40% attrition rate. Teachers face possible job loss as they strive to do what’s best for their students. Without the right conditions in place, even the best new teachers will falter; perhaps even leave their classrooms.

If our “best and brightest” educators are no longer teaching, what has our profession gained? Another statistic.

I choose to weigh Atwell’s comments against her life’s work and believe there was much more to what she was saying about the future of our profession than her words alone conveyed.

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