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Teaching is about connection: Connecting theory with practice, connecting what you read in a book or discuss in a classroom with what happens in the real world.

Most of all, it’s about connecting with students on a personal and emotional level, not just on an intellectual one.

More and more institutions are realizing that the diversity of our educators is an essential factor in their ability to make those connections – that the more our teaching workforce mirrors its student population, the more students will recognize that their voices are being represented, honored and understood.

Teaching is also about availability. We need a strong and dedicated workforce to meet the needs of our students. Unfortunately, teacher turnover remains the highest in the places that need that kind of dedication the most — in low-income communities. Also, an aging workforce points to an uptick in retirements in coming years that will necessitate even more teacher recruitment.

As 2016 National Teacher of the Year, I have been lucky to be part of conversations across the state and nation about our education systems, and I’ve noticed an encouraging amount of discussion. Still, practical solutions remain elusive, and while we attempt to address educator diversity and retention in Connecticut, we must remember to balance our approach to these issues with the need to uphold standards for educators so we are making sure our teachers are well-prepared to enter the classroom and teach effectively.

I do not claim to have all the answers, but in my experience, I’ve seen clear opportunities for improvement. Before we move forward, though, we must allow that this can be done; that we can, in fact, increase the number of minority educators and focus on the quality of our teachers at the same time, just as we can recruit and retain great teachers while ensuring the requirements for certification remain rigorous.

An important first step would be to get more creative with our recruitment tactics, broadening our reach and engagement with all types of communities so that we are connecting with the best candidates from across the state, and shifting our messaging so that becoming a professional educator is seen as a viable career path for all types of people from all walks of life.

Next, we must transition from focusing only on the technical, academic side of teaching and instead emphasize being a “complete” teacher – one that can connect with students, parents and the community as well as teach facts and figures.

Most important, we have to provide more mentors and support for new teachers, especially for those in low-income neighborhoods who often feel unsupported as they enter a profession that can be as demanding as it is rewarding.

That last point is crucial. Ongoing support by way of coaching and mentors can be the difference between a new teacher who feels frustrated and alone and one who feels understood, valued and lifted by the guidance of more experienced colleagues. This is how leaders are produced, ones who innovate and find new ways to engage with students and families inside and outside of the classroom.

Finding the right way to address the problems facing our state education system is a complicated and difficult proposition. But teacher preparation should always remain our top priority, and that means recruiting and retaining the best and most diverse candidates with the highest and most consistent standards for all of our schools.

Just as we expect the standards for doctors to remain high and the requirements for becoming a lawyer to remain rigorous, we should expect that the systems preparing those who teach our students remain focused on quality and readiness.

After all, these are the people who interact with our children and young adults daily and help guide them through some of the most difficult and important periods of their lives. The impact of a good teacher can last a lifetime – don’t we owe that opportunity to all of our children?

Jahana Hayes, a teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury, is the 2016 National Teacher of the Year.

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