The True Statue of Liberty: Our Great Teachers!

May 28, 2017 by

Tom Watkins –

Great teachers touch our collective future.  Lori Higgins, the Detroit Free Press education writer recently wrote a thoughtful and powerful article: “Who wants to be a teacher? Prep program numbers on the decline.” The data and perceptions in this story should make Lansing policymakers take notice. Ms. Higgins schools us: “Teacher training programs across Michigan have seen dramatic enrollment declines, threatening to create even more teacher shortages in hard-to-staff areas such as foreign languages, special education and early childhood programs.”

David Hecker, the capable leader of the American Federation of Teachers-Michigan captured his members sentiment saying, “People always want a quick fix, and there are no quick fixes for anything, so, it’s ‘let’s blame the teachers.’”


David Hecker, President of American Federation of Teachers-Michigan

Statewide, enrollment in teacher prep programs declined 38% from 2000 to 2012-13, according to the most recent federal data available. Nationally, the drop was 30% during the same time period. The decline is due largely to less job security as state and local education budgets shrink, teachers are laid off, salaries and benefits are cut and bargaining rights are weakened in some states. For some, the profession has become less attractive because of more public scrutiny over student performance, intense standardized testing, and finger-pointing at teachers when results come up short.

Blaming and punishing teachers is not a strong foundation to build a great state. I believe strongly that quality neighborhood schools, whether traditional, public or charter, are the true Statue of Liberty of this great country of ours. If you take a moment to reflect, you will see that there is not another institution in America today that truly takes the tired, hungry, poor, children with disabilities and those who speak English as a second language and gives them hope and opportunity.

The Torch

Teacher Helping Students With Schoolwork

Our capable teachers are the torch lighting the way for us all. Yet, today there are many teachers in our classrooms, as one expressed it, “feeling like gum on the bottom of a shoe.” Clearly, the winds of change are impacting our schools and teachers. From tenure reform to budget cuts, calls for additional schools of choice to increased co-payments for benefits, change has come fast and furious.

Let’s be honest, the only person who likes change is an infant!

Along with change, our schools and, more importantly, our children, deserve progress.  Michigan Governor Rick Snyder clearly understands there is an inextricably link between a high quality education and Michigan’s economic vitality. In his first special message on education he reinforced the need for our schools to institute the new “3 R’s: Restructure, Reform and Reinvention.” He has been working the “3 R’s” since entering office.

As a state, we are at the crossroads of re-imagining learning. How will we blend science, technology, and research to help make Michigan the brain bank of the world where everyone wants to come for deposits and withdrawals?  Much of the focus has been on the Michigan brain drain — kids with college degrees leaving the state. But, perhaps our greater challenge is the kids who are not educated that stay behind. This is not a foundation on which Michigan can be rebuilt, let alone be reinvented.

We need change, progress and innovation in education without demoralizing educators along the way.

In 2005 I wrote a report: The New Education (R)evolution — e-learning for Michigan ( which spelled out how technology can be aligned in our schools to advance learning, maximize teachers’ skills and save precious resources.


Today, learning can take place around the clock and around the world. We need to understand that public education can no longer be your father’s Oldsmobile. We must find ways to integrate technology into our schools, as a way to offer the ability to fit education to the interests and needs of individual learners. Technology has a unique capacity to support investigation and research, bringing people together through social networks to engage in learning activities. We have yet to truly tap the power of technology to advance learning. One such innovative new model is, The WAY (Widening Advancement for Youth) Program, (

Whether as a teacher, student or parent, when it comes to teaching and learning we need to adapt to the realization that the only thing that remains constant as the 21st century unfolds — is change. In the Free Press article, Elizabeth Willoughby, a fifth-grade teacher in Lakeview Public Schools, points out that in the five years she has been in the classroom, the environment has changed considerably. She thinks there’s too much emphasis on testing and not enough on the profession and art of teaching young people.

“We’re losing our autonomy,” she said. “The tests are driving the curriculum. … Teaching is becoming de-professionalized.” We need to work with our great teachers to assure accountability and results while not under minding the fabric which help build this great state and nation, our public schools and the men and women that educate our children and build our future. Let’s work with our great teachers to help them lead change — realizing that rhetoric from our state and nation’s capital never educated a single child. We must equip our teachers with the right tools, training and support to help our children and state thrive in the 21st century.

As Michigan’s state superintendent of schools, I attempted to lift up our schools, teachers and, most importantly, our students. I wrote a book: “They Help Us Paint Rainbows”—conversations with Michigan School Children. It is a book of childrens’ art and quotes from Kindergarten through high school, answering the question: “What makes a teacher great?”


We do have great teachers in Michigan and, as we push for greater accountability, innovation and reform we must never lose sight that rhetoric has never educated a single child. Great teachers do.

It is our collective responsibility to assure change equals progress!

The viability of our society, the strength of our economy, the quality of our lives, and our place in the world are inextricably linked to the quality of global, world-class education provided by our public schools and delivered by passionate, great teachers.


Tom Watkins served as Michigan’s state superintendent of schools, 2001-2005. He is the president and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority. He can be emailed at:, or followed on twitter at:@tdwatkins88

Source: The True Statue of Liberty: Our Great Teachers! |

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