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Essay by the First Lady in the November 2009 Issue of U.S. News & World Report: The Teacher as Leader

October 15, 2009

By Michelle Obama

This is a busy time of year in the Obama household. Like so many parents all across this country, I watch with a mixture of pride and anxiety as my daughters stuff their backpacks, kiss me goodbye, and move ahead in another new school year without so much as a backwards glance.

My girls are now making new friends, tackling challenging new subjects, and moving closer to becoming the strong, confident women I know they can be. But when I see them come home, bursting with excitement about something they have learned or someone they have met, I can't help but think that some of the most influential people in my daughters' lives won't be the ones they socialize with on the playground or read about in the pages of a book—they will be the people who stand up every day in front of their classrooms.

We all remember the impact a special teacher had on us – a teacher who refused to let us fall through the cracks; who pushed us and believed in us when we doubted ourselves; who sparked in us a lifelong curiosity and passion for learning. Decades later, we remember the way they made us feel and the things they inspired us to do – how they challenged us and changed our lives. So it's not surprising that studies show that the single most important factor affecting students' achievement is the caliber of their teacher.

And when we think about the qualities that make an outstanding teacher – boundless energy and endless patience; vision and a sense of purpose; the creativity to help us see the world in a different way and the commitment to helping us discover and fulfill our potential – we realize: these are also the qualities of a great leader.

Today, more than ever before, we need precisely this kind of leadership in our classrooms. As the President has frequently said, in a twenty-first century global economy where jobs can be shipped to any place with an internet connection, and children here in America will be competing with children around the world for the same jobs, a good education is no longer just one road to opportunity – it is the only road. And good teachers aren't just critical for the success of our students; they are the key to the success of our economy.

But the reality is that with each passing year, we are actually losing more and more of our most experienced teachers. More than half of our nation's teachers and principals are baby boomers. And in the next four years, as many as one third of America's 3.2 million teachers could retire. By 2014, just five short years from now, the U.S. Department of Education projects that our nation's schools will hire as many as one million new teachers.

And the challenge to our schools is not just an overall teacher shortage, but a shortage of good teachers in the schools where they are needed most: high-need schools that present some of the greatest challenges, but have students with so much potential. We also have a shortage of teachers in subjects like math and science that we know will be critical to our children's future.

Today, we need a new generation of leaders to take their place in our nation's schools. We need passionate, talented, committed men and women to step up and devote themselves to preparing our students to succeed in this new century.

We need universities to double down on their efforts to prepare teachers, and to improve and expand effective alternative routes to certify teachers. We need to encourage more experienced professionals to consider teaching as the next chapter in their careers. And we need to treat teachers like the professionals they are by providing good salaries and high quality professional development opportunities.

We need parents to do their part as well to match that leadership in the classroom with leadership at home. We need to set limits and turn off the TV; we need to put away those video games and make sure that homework gets done. We need to reinforce the example that's being set and the lessons being taught at school and make sure that learning continues at home.

And we need government to support significant efforts to recruit and retain teachers and to reward high performing teachers. Along those lines, President Obama is already investing more than three billion dollars to turn around struggling schools. And he has proposed a nationwide Teacher Recruitment Program to attract more people to the profession, especially in high-need schools. I look forward to being involved with this program and encouraging people across America to put their leadership skills to work in our nation's schools.

Much work lies ahead, and it won't be easy. But I am confident that with a new generation of outstanding leaders in our classrooms, we can make a lasting difference in the lives of our young people and a lasting impact on the life of this nation.

Michelle Obama, Essay by the First Lady in the November 2009 Issue of U.S. News & World Report: The Teacher as Leader Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320926

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