A Moment With Dr. Moore: Where Will Teaching Take You? Celebrating Women’s History Month

March 22, 2023

“I touch the future. I teach,” Christa McAuliffe said as she got ready to reach the stars. In 1985, she made the cut out of 11,000 contenders for the NASA Teacher in Space Project. And being selected to fly on the space shuttle Challenger made McAuliffe see that dreams can come true. “We all have to dream. Dreaming is okay,” she said. And her hopes for the future took flight as the date of lift-off approached. “Imagine me teaching from space, touching people’s lives all over the world,” she said. “I have a vision of the world as a global village, a world without boundaries. Imagine a history teacher making history”—words that have a special power as we celebrate women who have changed the world in their businesses or boardrooms, communities or classrooms.

“It’s Women’s History Month,” wrote Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and Deputy Secretary Cindy Marten, “and this year’s national theme—Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories—honors women of all ages and backgrounds who shape and share the story of America.” Many are impacting the fields of education and child care in ways that “expand our understanding of the human condition and strengthen our connections with each other and our world.”

These trailblazing women include Marian Wright Edelman, a civil rights activist and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. She started CDF to provide a strong voice for children, who cannot vote, lobby or speak out for themselves, and while at the helm of CDF, she worked on behalf of all children. Still, her greatest concern was to serve children of color, those who were disabled or came from under-resourced communities as part of her commitment to social justice. The pressure she put to bear on Capitol Hill convinced Congress to provide special protections for the most vulnerable children, overhaul the foster care system and make concrete improvements to child care. In addition, she helped launch Freedom Schools, a national project that has helped thousands of children nationwide to fall in love with learning by boosting their reading skills.

The Freedom Schools were part of Edelman’s quest for social justice since she has always believed “education is for improving the lives of others and for leaving your community and world better than you found it.” And this is a conviction she shares with former First Lady Michelle Obama, who has urged young people to “empower yourselves with a good education, then get out there and use that education to build a country worthy of your boundless promise.”

But that isn’t possible for the 62 million girls worldwide who can’t go to school due to the customs of their community or country. So, Obama used her clout to give them opportunities to learn. The Obama Foundation, which she co-founded with her husband, assessed the education system worldwide and explored ways to advance gender inequity in education. Then Obama found organizations that shared her cause and united them in a common effort. After partnering with 1,500 grassroots groups, she established the Global Girls Alliance to address specific communities’ concerns about educational access for girls and connect educational activists worldwide.

The Global Girls Alliance grew out of Obama’s passion for education. It also sprang from a 2013 discussion in the White House with Pakistani human rights advocate Malala Yousafzai, then a teen, whose work focuses on girls denied education for reasons ranging from war and economic pressure to cultural norms and outright bias. She became the face of activism for girls’ education after the Taliban took control of her town and forbade girls to enter schools. Despite the ban, Malala showed up at school when she was age 11 to speak out in public for women’s right to learn. In response, a masked gunman shot Malala, placing her in a coma for 10 days. But this act of vengeance didn’t silence her voice or put her sense of mission to sleep. After months of surgery and rehabilitation, she resumed her fight and established a charity fund that would give every girl the chance to learn and lead.

Malala believes that “one child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education first.” And that starts when children are very young, according to psychologist Alison Gopnik, who’s renowned for her theories on the development of the mind. Her work has challenged long-held beliefs that babies are inferior to adults in mental processing by showing that even the youngest children can think in creative, logical ways as they try to solve problems. And “quality child care is a crucial part of that process.” Optimum development “depends on having people around you who can unconditionally support your exploration,” as Gopnik points out. “Caregiving work that’s very underpaid and under-appreciated—and that’s still largely done by women—is essential for children to learn and innovate as they investigate the world.”

And elevating the role of our child care professionals, most of whom are women, has been my mission as CEO of the Council. It’s a position I never dreamed I would hold when I earned my CDA as a young teacher’s aide in Alabama. But the credential gave me the wings and will I needed to start rising in the early childhood field. Since then, I’ve soared up the ranks of my profession, as I like to tell CDA students nationwide. You never know where a career teaching children will take you. It might let you become CEO of a nonprofit, like it did for me. Or it could help you reach the stars, as it did for Barbara Morgan, who replaced Christa McAuliffe as Teacher in Space after the Challenger exploded shortly following lift-off.

Morgan began her professional life as an elementary school teacher and felt the experience had prepared her for the challenges of her new mission. There were similarities between her former and current career, as Morgan pointed out before boarding the space shuttle Endeavour in 2007. “Astronauts and teachers learn and share; they explore; they discover; and then they go learn and share some more.” Besides, both teaching and astronaut training require the ability to work with diverse groups of people. “The classroom is really a challenging environment. You’ve got up to 30 individuals that you’re building a team with. They have different learning styles, different backgrounds, different personalities. And your job is to work with each child so they can fulfill their potential.”

That was Christa McAuliffe’s goal as she envisioned “connecting my abilities as an educator with my interest in history and space. My job will be done,” she said, “if I can get a student interested in science”—something our educators do every day. Teachers do touch the future, as McAuliffe knew, since they give children the chance to reach for the stars. The guidance teachers provide can help girls grow up to be women who make history, too.


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