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There’s not a single person in this country who doesn’t know the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and, more importantly, everyone knows how he contributed to civil rights in this country.

Far fewer people know this name: Christine King Farris. Farris is the older sister of Dr. King, a former professor of education, and someone who made her share of civil rights contributions as well.

As my professor at Spelman College, Farris taught a class on the fundamentals of teaching reading, and she made sure that each of her students showed mastery of the constructs of the English language.

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We had to know that although there are 26 letters in the English alphabet, there are at least 44 phonemes, or distinct units of sound. She also ensured we knew the difference between diphthongs and digraphs, and she taught us how to build on students’ affective relationship with reading, using language experience charts and other similar tools to respond to texts and ignite a love of reading.

The result of her tutelage was that on my first day in the classroom, I was armed with the knowledge I needed to get my students solidly on their way to a functional and fulfilling literate life.

High-quality teacher preparation meant I was ready on Day One to teach reading in the classroom, unlike so many new teachers. In a 2020 nationwide survey conducted by Educators for Excellence, only 12 percent of teachers said that preparation programs train prospective teachers for the realities of the classroom very well. If literacy is the foundation for a good education, how can we reconcile this indignity imposed upon our educators?

Moreover, although a majority of public school students are students of color, white teachers account for 80 percent of the workforce. Because students of all backgrounds — and particularly students of color — benefit from having teachers of color, educator training must better support teachers of all backgrounds.

This is the conundrum that 24 teachers grappled with as they crafted a series of recommendations for teacher preparation and professional development — recommendations that can be implemented at the city, district and state levels in New York. These include the expansion of teacher-preparation programs that have shown an ability to prepare educators of color to join a workforce with a much lower rate of diversity than that of the students it serves; as well as a commitment to consulting educators in order to determine their professional-development needs and provide real-time support for their continued growth.

“… we must be clear that teachers are not interchangeable with caregivers or other well-meaning persons in our communities.”

The coronavirus pandemic has stretched the boundaries of teaching and learning for educators and students alike, and with New York entering the Phase Four designation required before school districts can consider returning to in-person instruction, many conversations are under way about the best way forward for K-12 education.

Whether we engage students virtually or in-person, and regardless of what constitutes the right mix between synchronous and asynchronous instruction, we must be clear that teachers are not interchangeable with caregivers or other well-meaning persons in our communities.

Educators are professionals. Good preparation is fundamental to a foundational understanding of effective pedagogy and the deep subject-matter knowledge necessary for teachers to impart it to learners. And after they enter the classroom, teachers must be supported with timely, relevant professional development that responds to current realities and is affirmed by other educators as valuable.

As the nation faces a reckoning with deep inequities laid bare by a pandemic and footage of brutal police killings, teachers are demanding that their voices be heard — respect us, hear us, and set us up to help our students through this moment and beyond.

When teachers aren’t adequately prepared and lack information they need to make decisions, they are not being respected.

When professional-development opportunities are divorced from teachers’ needs and there is an absence of quality control, teachers’ voices are not being heard. When plans for school reopening are not made with the students who face the greatest challenges in mind, teachers are not being set up for success.

Related: COLUMN: The educational value of a Black teacher

While she is no longer in the college classroom, Christine King Farris understood these issues and more, and though her efforts in the fundamentals of teaching weren’t front and center like those of her younger brother, for decades she prepared hundreds of educators for battle on an equally potent civil rights frontier: the K-12 classroom.

Those teachers have been deployed across the country as crusaders for excellent teaching and learning. I am thankful to have been one of those teachers, but it is up to all of us to continue her work.

This story about teacher preparation and the fundamentals of teaching was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.

Paula L. White is executive director of the New York chapter of Educators for Excellence.

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