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Tom Watkins
Tom Watkins

What Makes Our Teachers Great?

March 10, 2017 

Educators in Michigan and across the country are feeling unappreciated and in many cases under siege.

While serving as Michigan Superintendent of Public Instruction (2001-05), I recognized the value and values that great educators brought in their roles as teachers to our youth. From pre-school, to K-12, and community college to the Ivy League, great teachers are touching and shaping our collective future each day.

Of late, I have been reflecting on my tenure as Michigan’s State Superintendent. Some critics berated me as a “cheerleader” for our great teachers and for standing up for our public schools. I accepted this criticism with great pride. I considered it my job and I passionately embraced the benefits which our exceptional educators and schools were producing for our children, their families, and the communities across the state and nation. All the while, I pushed for change, hoping it would lead to progress and sensible reform.

As someone who helped to create the forerunner to Michigan’s first charter schools, I supported the establishment of countless other alternatives educational models here and around the nation, including Florida’s first charter school, where I took a backseat to no one about the need for change and reform. I only demanded that it be about teaching, learning, and children and not about power, control, politics, and adults.

I was equally fierce in not simply accepting rhetoric, ideology and false narrative as gospel truth.

To be clear, sermonizing, rhetoric, and ideology have never educated a single child. However, quality teachers who have mastered their subject areas, know learning pedagogy, and who are passionate about ‘TLC’ – teaching, learning, and children – and when best equipped with materials and support, are the magic ingredients necessary for learning to occur.

Without the slightest embarrassment, I believe our great public schools (traditional, charter, and cyber) are the true Statues of Liberty in our great nation. I challenge anyone to name another institution that truly takes the tired, hungry and poor, the children who speak English as a second language, and children with disabilities, and gives them hope and opportunity. I firmly believe our teachers are the torch lighting the way for us all.

I grew tired as easily then as I do today, about the hammer I see being used to beat down our teachers and schools.

Ladders Not Hammers

During my tenure as State Superintendent, I produced a book about Michigan teachers, titled, “They Help Us Paint Rainbows” – a colorful paperback that paired students’ words about what makes our teachers great with student artwork, ranging from stick figures to stunningly sophisticated drawings produced by students across Michigan.

With the generous support from Cindy Pasky and Paul Huxley, owners of Strategic Staffing Solutions, we printed tens of thousands of copies and the inspirational books and distributed free to help uplift our great teachers.

In its own way, this book was a small symbolic way to acknowledge teachers and their significant contribution to our state and nation. (See: Teacher Appreciation/ Ed Week:

As I visited classrooms from as far away as the distant reaches of the Western UP, and to Grand Rapids, Detroit and south and west to Monroe to St. Joe, Michigan, I would ask students, “What makes a teacher great?”

For months, I stuffed scraps of paper with the students’ words into my pockets. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the names of the children as I wrote down their pearls of wisdom because I didn’t envision then, using the students’ words to create a book at the time. The 60- page book attributes the artwork to students, first name and school, but the quotes are anonymous.

I am first to acknowledge that not every single teacher is great, and personally, I recall having some “downright lousy” teachers. But great teachers touch both your mind, heart, and spirit. The vast majority of our teachers add value and make a difference by teaching and inspiring our youth and need to be acknowledged and thanked.

In my estimation, teachers are the unsung heroes. They should feel honored for the work that they do. Most of us can recall a great teacher and how they have changed the trajectory of our lives.

As captured in the introduction to the book, three truths have become clear to me:

  1. Great things are happening in Michigan public schools, every day, thanks to the dedication and commitment of educators.
  2. The world is changing in dynamic ways, and our system of ‘public education’ must find a way to embrace those changes or risk being engulfed by them.
  3. The promise of our collective future is sitting in our classroom today. The quality of our lives, the strength of our economy, the vibrancy of our democracy and our place in the world – all depend on the quality of our classroom teachers. The title of the book, “They help us Paint Rainbows” , came from a rosy cheeked little girl, a kindergartener, who after hearing me read to her class blurted out “They help us paint rainbows” when I asked the class if anyone could tell me ‘what makes a teacher great’? How wonderfully direct, I thought, how delightful, profound and philosophical. Then my eyes followed the child’s pointing finger, I turned and saw 25 hand-drawn rainbows proudly displayed on a bulletin board. Ah, out of the mouths of babes – she was stating a truth so obvious, and literal that only an adult could fail to see.

Change Is Inevitable. Progress Should Not Be Optional.

Our teachers are feeling beaten down and we should be seeking ways to lift them up. A little book of thanks is needed today as a symbol of gratitude for the great teachers who help our children ‘paint rainbows’.

Let’s pause and give thanks to the great teachers in our state. We need to actively engage them in helping to forge necessary change that will lead to progress for our kids.

All that is needed is a generous donor to come forward to help reprint the book. This message is universal and is needed today more than ever.

Tom Watkins  served the citizens of Michigan as state superintendent of schools and state mental health director. He is the President and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority ( He can be emailed at:, or followed on twitter at:@tdwatkins88


March 9, 2017 · Filed under Tom Watkins



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