Podcast: Turning Appreciation into Action with Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona on Teachers in America 

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Welcome back to Teachers in America, where we celebrate teachers and their lasting impact on students' learning journeys and lives.

In honor of 2024 Teacher Appreciation Week, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona joins HMH's CEO Jack Lynch to discuss pressing issues in education. Together, they explore the integration of AI in the classroom, tackling teacher burnout, competitive salaries, and building respect for the teaching profession. Plus, Secretary Cardona shares an experience for his early days as a teacher and advice from influential educators that have stuck with him throughout his career. You can follow Secretary Cardona on X, Facebook, or Instagram. Find the U.S. Department of Education on X, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.

The views expressed in this podcast are those of the guest and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

Noelle Morris: Welcome to Teachers in America, a podcast from HMH. Today I'm pleased to introduce a very special episode, featuring U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, interviewed by HMH’s CEO Jack Lynch. We hope you’ll enjoy this conversation honoring the teachers of America during Teacher Appreciation Week.

Jack Lynch: Welcome, Secretary Cardona, to this very special episode for Teacher Appreciation Week. So, it is great to have you back.

Secretary Cardona: Great to be back, and really want to just say Happy Teacher Appreciation Week. Every week should be Teacher Appreciation Week. But this is a really important week for us to really acknowledge the great work that our educators do across the country.

Jack Lynch: Now, given that it’s Teacher Appreciation Week, we know you, prior to becoming Secretary of Education, have had a rich and diverse career in education. I was wondering if you could share some of your most memorable experiences from the time you spent in the classroom.

Secretary Cardona: Well, I have to think back to the last century to recall. Look, you know, once a teacher, always a teacher, and those years of serving as a fourth-grade teacher for me have impacted me in this role more than any other role.

I’ll tell you a story. My first year teaching—you’re just trying to get through the year with a smile on your face and it was a really amazing year. And I remember the last day of school, I had a young man named Hassan. He was such a smart kid. He is just really intelligent and the last day of school, his father comes up to see me and says, “Hey, Mr. Cardona, you know, we’re going to have a long summer and I want to keep him busy doing good things. Could you give him some work over the summer?” And the poor kid, he is nine years old, he is like, “Oh really? Dad? Like, why would you do this? Why would you say this?” And I’m thinking, I wanted to help this kid out.

I didn’t want to bury him in packets. So I said, “You know what, Hassan. . .” Now this is the nineties. I said, “Hassan, you’re a smart kid and you’re really good with technology, right? Could you make our school a website over the summer?” And I just literally said it on a whim, “Could you just make our school a website?”

He liked that, because he is like, “Good, I get to be on my computer and do things.” All kidding aside, I didn’t think about it all summer. The first day of school, the following year, he shows up really excited to show me what he did over the summer. He created an HTML code, which back then that wasn’t as easy to do.

You didn’t have websites that allow you to create a website. He created coding, a website for the whole school, and I know he did it because some of the words were misspelled, but he had the bio of the nurse. He had a bio of the principal, the classrooms. I was just blown away. When you put a challenge out there, students rise to the occasion and it was a great, great experience, great memory for me. I was just awestruck at what he was able to do.

Secretary Cardona's earlier days in the classroom has heavily impacted his work today.

Jack Lynch: Yeah, it’s a great story, Secretary. And it’s a win-win. It was a win for Hassan’s father and a win for Hassan. And I think it’s also a great story about how impactful teachers are for their students.

We often think of teachers. . . there’s a narrative out there that teachers are kind of a mechanism for standards-based instruction, which really trivializes their impact engaging and inspiring and mentoring students. And this is a great story. It kind of reinforces that very deep connection a teacher has with their students.

Secretary Cardona: Absolutely. He wanted to impress, and let me tell you, he exceeded our expectations. His website was better than the actual website we had for the school. And you’re right. I wouldn’t be here if weren’t for a teacher I looked up to. And any word that the teacher said, I hung on it because I had so much respect for that teacher.

I always say we have to name them publicly. For me it was Mr. O’Neill and Ms. Ransom. I wouldn’t be Secretary of Education if it wasn’t Ms. Ransom saying, “You know, Miguel, I think you’d make a good teacher.” So, you’re absolutely right.

Jack Lynch: How has that classroom experience really influenced the work that you do today?

Secretary Cardona: Significantly. I recognize that it’s not just curriculum; it’s not just standards. While that’s really important, I’m reminded of what I was told when I was a student-teacher by Rindy Hardy, another teacher that influenced me as I was coming up in the profession. She said, “Miguel, never forget, this is the last day of student teaching. Never forget, you teach kids, not curriculum.” And that stuck with me. I knew what she meant. Yes, have high standards, but connect with them as people first. And to this day, there’s not a policy that goes forward, there’s not an action that we take at the Department of Education, that is not influenced by the person that we’re going to be touching, whose lives we’re going to be touching.

The decisions that we make at the Department of Education, me as Secretary, I have to make a through line to helping children and connecting to children. And my experience as a teacher really helped me make that possible. Because there are times where I look at what we’re doing at the Department of Education and say, “Look, are we creating obstacles for educators to be able to connect with students? Are we over-prescribing what we think needs to happen from D.C. That’s not the approach that is going to work.”

I’ve also learned that engaging educator voice, teacher voice, is part of the solution. Oftentimes we think when we do things to schools or to districts that we’re going to get the best results. That’s absolutely false. It’s when we engage and have authentic ownership and engagement in the problem solving with our teachers, it’s when we see the best results.

Secretary Cardona believes that engaging teacher voice is vital in creating change in education. 

Jack Lynch: Yeah, absolutely. I think that, given your experience, you have a natural empathy for what a teacher is going through in the day to day and using that as a filter through which you look at policy and determining how this is going to affect teaching and learning at a very personal level is really, really important.

I want to turn to another important topic, generative AI, which I know is something that you have spent a lot of time in and invest a lot of time in with you and your staff.

And at HMH, we share your vision of using AI responsibly to extend, not replace, but extend and empower teachers.

In particular, two recommendations have been made by the Office of Education Technology that resonate with us. One is to keep a human in the loop and then the second is to inform and involve educators around designing and developing and testing and implementing AI-enabled education technology.

As we continue to explore how best to harness the power of AI to improve teaching/learning, we’d love to hear your thoughts about the most exciting ways that AI could transform educators’ experience and support student success.

Secretary Cardona: Absolutely. Teachers in the loop for sure. We saw during the pandemic that there is no substitute for that in-classroom experience. No amount of Zoom or technology can replace that experience of being a part of something bigger than yourself in a classroom and having an educator who’s connecting with you. When my kids were learning remotely, they missed that sense of community. We should learn from that, that no amount of AI can replace that relational development and that sense of community that a classroom teacher directs in his or her classroom. And then as I said in my earlier response, you can’t improve education without making sure that teachers’ fingerprints are all over that plan.

Second to parents, teachers know those children more than anyone else, and they know the impacts of policy more than anyone else, second to parents. I learned this the hard way. I was a school principal. I remember getting certified in data-driven decision making.

That was a three-day conference. I got this certificate that made me the expert in it, and then I go into the building and I’m trying to roll this out, realizing, “No, I’m missing the point. I need to build capacity of the concepts of it and then ask teachers to think about how we can make it work in our school.”

And when I let go, it excelled. It exceeded my expectations, and our students did better. Similarly, with implementation of AI, we need to make sure not only are we building support and capacity for our educators. We’re creating an environment where they can help communicate and usher in what it means for that school community. I’ll take a step back and say, I’m excited about the potential here. Yeah, it’s a little nerve-wracking because there’s a whole new body of work here. But I don’t profess to be the expert in it. I think this is an exciting opportunity where we create structures where we share not only the opportunities, but the guardrails that we need for our students to be safe.

Unlike what we didn’t do when the internet came out—there were no guardrails. And we saw what happened there, or social media. Now we’re starting to put in guardrails. We have to learn from that and put guardrails, but let’s see where it goes. Just like Hassan created a website before this was in vogue, imagine the potential of our country when we unleash, in increments that are age-appropriate for students, an opportunity to explore artificial intelligence to enhance learning. Not replace, but I think we’re going to go from a system of analog learning or rote learning to really creative problem solving and engaging instruction and learning. I think in many ways, it could help accelerate the shift away from memorization and facts or test prep. We need to get away from that. We need to give our students better. I know our teachers have been thirsting for that for years. So, I’m really excited about this.

Jack Lynch: That’s great. And I think it also has the opportunity to increase teacher capacity and productivity, helping them. Free them, if you will, to perform a lot of administerial tasks that they can delegate to a virtual assistant, if you will. And at the same time, get feedback to students much more quickly and much more effectively.

We just recently acquired a business called Writable, which is using generative AI for writing practice.

Secretary Cardona: Nice.

Jack Lynch: If you think about the amount of time and effort that goes into giving really good feedback in a revision process to students, it’s a lot. And so students don’t get in as much practice as they ordinarily should. With that kind of support from generative AI, the teacher’s able to increase their capacity and get students really good feedback on a much more timely basis than they would otherwise.

Secretary Cardona: Yeah, that sounds exciting. And you’re absolutely right. Not only are there benefits for students, but benefits for educators. One of the things that I want to just point out that we also have to learn from our history when it comes to innovation in education is that we need to invest time in educator development. We can’t expect after a half an hour drive-by staff meeting on AI, that they’re going to be experts and then we expect them to do something without giving them the support and professional development that they need to grow in their craft.

The days of squeezing everything into a one-hour staff meeting or during a prep time. We’ve got to make sure that we’re investing in our educators to develop those skills to be successful. That’s a challenge that I have out there as well. If we’re serious about seeing AI really transform education, we need to make sure that we’re providing time to give our educators the opportunity to learn and grow with it.

Jack Lynch: Yeah, exactly. Secretary, a few moments ago you mentioned the word guardrails, so I wanted to ask you about guardrails and in particular thinking about the federal role in regulating AI. How are you and your team trying to navigate the need to protect the role of teachers in education and student privacy while also allowing enough room for innovation? What you were talking about earlier—and you’re coming back with data-driven instruction.

How do you unleash that in a way that it can really grow in a school or in a school district, but at the same time ensure that there are guardrails in place for protection?

Secretary Cardona: Well, you know, this really goes to the top. The President put out an executive order that has tentacles in many different agencies, not just mine, to make sure that while we embrace the potential, we’re also protecting our students, our families, our national intelligence, our defense data, our banks. There’s a lot of risk if not controlled well, and with regard to education, as I said earlier, it has the potential to unleash it.

Our report that we published in May of last year starts to get into what that means and what it could look like. We are starting to see models of districts that are thinking about it in a way that says, “How do we bring the people to the table?” It can’t be done to a district. It has to be done with a district, right? Parent engagement and a better understanding of what the potentials are and what the risks are. 

You know, there’s a lot of bias risks in AI. And as the systems get better, we also have to be aware at what point do we bring things in front of students or give them an opportunity to explore it, knowing that we need to protect them. So, that process to me is a process that we do with folks. And because it’s changing so quickly, I don’t profess that we’re going to be ahead of the curve on this. We have to see how it goes and as it adapts, as it grows, we look for ways that it can be authentically engaged in instruction.

But make no mistake, it cannot replace an educator. It cannot replace the school experience. I don’t even know that there are pockets of people saying that it can. It can enhance learning. I think that, as I said earlier, the experience with the pandemic, you could have the best technology, the best curriculum online.

There’s no replacing an educator in the classroom and the relational foundation that a teacher provides with children. Everything else comes after. For us, it’s about student safety, protecting their rights, and ensuring that whatever tool we use, whether it’s AI, laptop, it doesn’t matter, it’s enhancing learning, not replacing a person or a curriculum.

Jack Lynch: Right, exactly. We, as you may know, Secretary, we conduct an annual survey of teachers and education leaders called the Educator Confidence Report that looks at the sentiment of the educators across a number of topics. And what we found in a most recent report it surveyed is that 82% of teachers want a more balanced workload and a staffing plan to support wellbeing.

The top concerns among educators include mental health concerns among fellow educators and students, and the social-emotional needs of students. What role do you think your office can play in mitigating these issues, such as teacher burnout and staffing shortages?

Secretary Cardona: I’ve been an unapologetic outspoken advocate for lifting the profession. And what I mean by lifting it is giving it the dignity that it deserves. When we talk about teacher shortages, I talk about them as a symptom of a teacher respect issue in this country. I talk about the ABCs of teaching. Agency is A, you know, let’s treat them like professionals and let them make decisions.

B is better working conditions, ensuring that there are enough mental health supports for students and staff, that teachers are not always being asked to do more with less, that teachers are not normalizing working in a 95-degree classroom in June because there’s no air conditioning in a building that’s over a hundred years old that no other corporation would allow their employees to work in. That’s B.

C is competitive salary. On average, teachers make 24% less than people with similar degrees in other professions. Why do we normalize that?

The profession is about 75% women. Would it be the same if it were 75% men? We have to have these conversations. And if our country’s going to grow the way it should grow, if we’re going to lead the world the way I expect us to lead the world because we have the potential, then we need to invest in our educators differently.

I always say, “We want Finland results, but we don’t put in Finland investments.” So for me, what we’re doing at the Department of Education is, number one, I’m using my platform as a bully pulpit to talk about the importance of elevating the teaching profession. Of not just talking about it during Teacher Appreciation Week, but when it’s contract time, when it’s time to look at ratios of teachers and students, providing mental health supports in the community and for educators.

I talk about teacher professional development. Teachers pay out of their pocket to go to conferences on weekends. What other profession does that? So, we need to really call out what has been normalized and revisit how we support or don’t support our educators.

There’s a term like that: martyrdom. I say we’ve accepted martyrdom when teachers are making . . . there’s some states in our country where teachers start at $38,000 a year.

Jack Lynch: Mm-Hmm.

Secretary Cardona: That’s unacceptable. That’s basically saying you’re going to have to get another job to make ends meet.

In too many of our states teachers qualify for state assistance. We’re okay with that in this country? My mentality is let’s set the bar high. Why are we not talking about teachers making a hundred thousand dollars a year, if they’re responsible for meeting the needs of our learners who have increased need, mental health need? Why are we not talking about that?

We’re pushing to provide public service loan forgiveness for teachers that have worked 10 years, that have paid their loans for 10 years. We’re eliminating debt. I’ve talked to teachers that have had over a hundred thousand dollars in debt relieved, but we have to do a better job making sure the working conditions are adequate, making sure the salary is competitive.

Or else we’re going to have a bunch of schools with a lot of substitute teachers and we’re going to be expecting our students to meet the demand of this country. When you ask me what am I doing about it? Yes, we have grants, we have the Augusta Hawkins grant that pays for Grow Your Own programs.

We have over a billion dollars in teacher quality programs. This President has done more in education in three years than I’ve seen in my 25-year career in education: $130 billion when he walked in the door with the American Rescue Plan. The BSCA plan put $2 billion in mental health supports and safer school environments, and we’re going to continue. If you look at our annual budget, we’re going to continue fighting for our profession, for our educators, at all levels.

I always say it’s not just the federal government, our states, our local districts need to recognize you either pay a competitive salary now or you’re going to pay later when you don’t have enough teachers to fill the classrooms. Our students deserve better, and for me, any opportunity I get, including this one, to say it loud and proud, I’m going to say it because I know these teachers are going to work no matter what.

And it’s not fair that we take advantage of it knowing that our country’s growth is in the balance. We need to step up for teachers. We’re doing it in our policy, in our words, and in our actions. It’s something that I take great pride in not only during Teacher Appreciation Week, but throughout the year to say, “Let’s stand up for our teachers. They stood up for our kids. We need to step up.”

Jack Lynch: Well said. And I agree that we have normalized low pay and these conditions, and it’s great to see what you’re doing to help mitigate those concerns. One of the things that education leaders did during and after the pandemic is use ESSER funding for a number of different purposes.

But one of the things that they did was they used ESSER funding to address this intractable problem of low teacher pay and now as a result, the cost structures reflect many school districts where you’ve remedied that particular issue of low teacher pay through the ESSER funds. But these are a one-time, non-refunding source. Have you been talking about schools, of how they can sustain that investment?

Secretary Cardona: Yes, and I have to say, we’ve been working with governors, the state legislators across the country. We have about 29 states just last year alone, that have increased teacher salary. We want more. But we are seeing that shift. And you’re right, the American Rescue Plan dollars were just that: rescue dollars, recovery dollars.

It wasn’t intended to make up for decades of underinvestment by states. The federal government pays 9% of all education funding, just 9%. The other 91% also has to step up. So, my mentality is, “Look, let’s match the urgency of the President when it comes to education funding.” And if you look at our annual budget, we’re seeking to increase Title I by 11%.

That goes to the schools that have the greatest need. You’ll see in our annual budget, we’re really pushing for additional education dollars. I’m gonna be in front of Capitol Hill, some of these hearings that are going to go on four to five hours, fighting for a budget that reflects that we need to continue to invest in education.

That responsibility goes across the board. So, while we’re recognizing that The American Rescue Plan dollars, the BSCA dollars, which is again, $2 billion for mental health, has a sunset. We’re also fighting for the annual budget. We’re fighting to make sure that there’s sustainable dollars there, and I think that’s an all-hands-on-deck proposition that we’re proud to fight and I’m proud to stand up the President’s record.

Meanwhile, you know, I was dealing with proposals from the other side that were calling for 80% cut to Title I. That’s 200,000 teachers across the country. You know, we have to do better. We have to do better.

Jack Lynch: Given it is Teacher Appreciation Week, what are the top three things we can do as a country to foster a broader appreciation for teachers?

Secretary Cardona calls for the ABCs of teaching: provide agency, better working conditions, and competitive salary.

Secretary Cardona: I said it before, and I’m going to say it again. What we need to do are the ABCs of teaching: provide agency and treat our teachers like the professionals that they are, and allow for their voice, allow for their input on the things that we’re doing to improve our schools and our districts and our communities. That’s agency.

B is better working conditions: ensure that they have the tools that they need to do their jobs, that they’re not digging into their pocket anytime they need to do something for students despite being paid 24% less than other professions with similar degrees. And that their schools have the ample resources so that kids can get the support that they need. Our teachers are wearing many hats. We need to provide better working conditions for our educators.

And C, competitive salary. We have to stop what I call the martyrdom, where we make teachers feel guilty if they’re advocating for competitive salary. Some folks try to turn it around and say, “You’re not for the kids if you’re fighting for competitive salary.” Absolutely wrong. We want the best for our kids, and we’re not going to be able to sustain high-quality teachers in our classrooms if we’re not investing in our educators. Investing in our educators is investing in our students, in our schools. So, for me, it’s the ABCs.

Keep it simple. I think that’s the message. I felt that way when I was a fourth-grade teacher. I felt that way all the way through to Secretary of Education and as a father of two students who attended public schools, I feel that way as a father. So, ABCs. Happy Teacher Appreciation Week. Great to be with you today.

I really appreciate you giving me some time to talk about the best profession that there is and one that changes the world. So, thank you.

Jack Lynch: That’s a great way to finish, Secretary Cardona. Thank you so much for being so generous with your time and showing your appreciation for our nation’s teachers.

Secretary Cardona: Thank you all, I really appreciate it. And thanks for all you do to really uplift the profession and your contribution to what I think is a really important topic at this time in our country.

Jack Lynch: Thank you, Secretary. Take care.

Noelle Morris: If you or someone you know would like to be a guest on the Teachers in America podcast, please email us at shaped@hmhco.com. Be the first to hear new episodes of  Teachers in America, by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you enjoyed today's show, please rate, review, and share it with your network. You can find the transcript of this episode on our Shaped blog by visiting hmhco.com/shaped. The link is in the show notes.

The Teachers in America podcast is a production of HMH. Executive producers are Christine Condon and Tim Lee. Our producer and editor is Jennifer Corujo. Production designers are Mio Frye and Thomas Velazquez. 

Thanks again for listening!

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