Rita Pierson: “Every kid needs a champion”

Is there any profession more important or demanding than teaching? Think about it. How many jobs require mastery of the multiplicity of skills that the teaching profession does?  Teachers must first be masters of their subject matter.  They must possess fine organizational skills and be Zen masters of complex management techniques. Teachers must possess patience, determination, compassion, and even a large dollop of acting skills.

Contrary to the focus of educational reform since the explosion of standardized testing, there’s more to education than rote learning and mandated benchmarks. With all the focus on testing and tough teacher evaluation swirling around the teaching profession, there is one vital skill that’s not easily quantified and isn’t much talked about. That’s the skill of forging relationships.

For former teacher Rita Pierson, recognizing the power of relationship is essential. As she says, “strong relationships encourage exploration, dialogue, confidence, and mutual respect.” Unfortunately, during her long career, Ms. Pierson’s seen that all too often the “value of relationships is downplayed or ignored completely in teacher preparation.”

In 2011 (the last year for which statistics are available), there were 3.3 million public school teachers and .4 million private school teachers. That massive army of educators shows up to work five days a week with the knowledge that each and every one of them needs a bag of skills and tricks more complex than most of us can imagine. They know that no matter what’s going on in their own lives or the difficult challenges of the classroom, they’ve got to bring their best to their jobs each and every day or they’ll lose the trust and attention of their students.

Teachers today also know that the challenging job they’ve taken on has become even more difficult. Competition for students’ attention is fierce. Kids are watching on average more than 28 hours of television a week. Teens are playing video games about 53 hours per week. According to a study recently completed by the Nielsen Company, electronic media (television, video games, computers, and social media) eats up on average 7.5 hours of a kid’s attention span in a single day.

This is one heck of a competitive climate.  If teachers are going to duke it out with the electronic world sucking up kids’ time and attention, they’re going to need something that can’t be found in the cloud. That something, according to Rita Pierson, are flesh-and-blood relationships.

Rita Pierson leaves you with no doubts. She is a believer in the transformative power of relationships.  She’s out there right now crusading for her fellow teachers to focus on what she believes to be the single most important, but neglected, tool in the teacher’s toolbox.

In April 2013, Pierson gave a moving TED Talk in New York City, entitled “Every Kid Needs a Champion.” Finding inspiration in the words of her mentor, veteran educator Dr. James Comer, Pierson’s talk focused on her experiences putting into practice Dr. Comer’s dictum that “no significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” Pierson is passionate, funny, wise, and, above all, determined. The video below of her presentation might be one of the most insightful takes on the teaching profession you may ever see or hear. Listen up and learn. I believe you’ll feel privileged, as I did, to make the acquaintance of this great lady. She’s got something big to teach teachers and, by the way, the rest of us.