The Rev. William Barber, pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C., and founder of Repairers of the Breach, a leadership development organization, was named one of this year's MacArthur fellows by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. (Gerry Broome/AP)
Reporter

Artist/curator. Analytical chemist. Poet. Planetary scientist. Writer. Another writer. Third writer. Sociologist/legal scholar. Those are the professions of some of the 25 truly extraordinary people who were just named as MacArthur Foundation Fellows, or, more commonly known as “MacArthur geniuses” for 2018. And the remarkable preacher William Barber was on the list, too.

But there’s one group of professionals that didn’t make it: pre-K through 12th-grade classroom teachers.

The MacArthur Foundation selects a group of highly talented people every year to be given the title of fellow, along with a check for $625,000, to be used however the recipient chooses.

The foundation’s website says, “The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation supports creative people, effective institutions, and influential networks building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.” It also says there are three criteria for selection to be a fellow:

It further says:

The MacArthur Fellows Program is intended to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations. In keeping with this purpose, the Foundation awards fellowships directly to individuals rather than through institutions. Recipients may be writers, scientists, artists, social scientists, humanists, teachers, entrepreneurs, or those in other fields, with or without institutional affiliations. They may use their fellowship to advance their expertise, engage in bold new work, or, if they wish, to change fields or alter the direction of their careers.

Although nominees are reviewed for their achievements, the fellowship is not a lifetime achievement award, but rather an investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential. Indeed, the purpose of the MacArthur Fellows Program is to enable recipients to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society. [bold type added by me]

When I think of people who do work that benefits human society and who must be creative to do great work, the first profession that comes to mind is teaching, but then again, I write about education, so that’s not unusual.

Still, without intending to sound churlish in the least, this raises the question about why there have been so few K-12 classroom teachers who have been given the award since the program began back in 1981, nearly 40 years ago.

There isn’t one this year, nor last year, nor the year before, nor the year before that, etc. There wasn’t one in 2013, when I last wrote about this. A search of the foundation’s website shows that the one was Amir Abo-Shaeer, a high school physics teacher in California in the 2010 class of fellows, and only a handful throughout the life of the awards.

The website has a filter that allows you to look at winners by category. There is one for “education and training,” and that search will get you 19 people, most of them not classroom teachers. (The 19 do not include the many scholars and researchers at colleges and universities who have won over the years).

Most of the 19 are labeled as “educators” of one form or another, though there is a community organizer and a bookseller among them too. Are they educators outside the classroom? Certainly. Still, that doesn’t address the classroom-teacher-as-MacArthur-fellows issue.

Search through the filter of the category “STEM education and communication” and you get eight names, including a biomedical animator and a computer graphics animator. Three of the eight are labeled teachers or educators.

In a most unscientific survey, I asked a few winners who then became nominators about the teacher issue. They said it never occurred to them to nominate a classroom teacher.

Is it because teaching is not perceived to be creative, even though it most certainly is? Is it because teaching is not seen as a science or an art, even though it is a mixture of both, plus more? Exceptional teaching is a marvelous — sometimes miraculous — mix of skills, smarts and creativity. Sounds like MacArthur-genius-worthy to me. (And please don’t write in the comments that are some teachers are lousy at what they do. That is true but hardly the point here.)

I asked a spokesman for the MacArthur Foundation what could account for the lack of classroom teachers on the list. Here is the response from Andy Solomon, managing director of communications for the foundation:

There are MacArthur Fellows who are teachers, including physics teacher Amir Abo-Shaeer and high school debating coach Tommie Lindsey. Each class of Fellows is distinctive, but Fellows are not chosen based on their professional field. They are selected solely based on their exceptional creativity and promise for extraordinary future work.

Doesn’t exactly answer the question, does it?

(This was updated with Solomon comment)