Reflections from ISS President Liz Duffy

May 2017

The Importance of Teachers

Liz Duffy, ISS President

The lead article in the May 2017 issue of NewsLinks by Laura Benson, ISS Director of Curriculum and Professional Development, is both a heartbreaking and a heartwarming testament to why what teachers do is important. Even though teaching can have its challenging and frustrating moments, most teachers ultimately experience great joy and satisfaction from their profession. Teaching, as Laura so poignantly describes, is about transforming lives. As you reflect on the school year just ending and prepare for the next school year, I encourage you to take a few minutes to think about the differences you’ve made in your students’ lives, both grand and small, and to remember that what you do matters, because as Laura wrote, “You save lives with your teaching.”

Often the biggest difference that a teacher makes is when students struggle. This spring, Kevin Mattingly, an adjunct professor at Columbia University and the director of the cocurriculum at the Riverdale Country School, led an online book group discussion about Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Brown et al, 2014). The book and ensuing discussion was intended to correct common myths about learning, including that students learn best when material comes easily to them and that facility with content equates to learning. In fact, the most enduring learning comes when students grapple with materials and struggle to make meaning of new concepts by applying them in novel, authentic contexts or linking them to prior learning.

Think back to your own experiences as a learner. Among the experiences and assignments that I remember from my formal education are writing a biology term paper arguing that sociobiology was antifeminist (with all the indignity my feminist seventeen year old self could muster), staging a mock New England town meeting with my classmates, having to redesign the periodic table of elements on a chemistry final, and writing a personal essay about the evolution of my hairstyle. My guess is that your most memorable classroom learning experiences like mine, required you to really think about what you were studying and centered on topics that personally mattered to you.

If you’re interested in learning more about the science of learning, I encourage you to enroll in a selfpaced EdX MOOC developed by Kevin Mattingly and Pearl Kane, the Director of the Klingenstein Center at Teachers’ College, Columbia University. You can enroll here. Some of my ISS colleagues and I participated in the first version of the course last fall, and we all very much enjoyed and benefitted from the experience.

Of course, as Laura’s tribute so eloquently conveys, both the opportunity for and the effect of learning extend far beyond the classroom. Thanks to all of you for “making a world of difference” to the students in your care and the many people whose lives they will in turn affect.

Happy summer!