"It took me several years to accept that I couldn't eliminate the problems my students returned to at night. My power lay in making school a place where children felt safe, encouraged, stimulated. It lay in making my classroom a place that accommodated different styles and paces of learning.

"'Looping' [keeping the same students for first and second grades] has been a useful tool toward this end. I was the first teacher at my school to hold on to my students for two years, but now other teachers have seen the stability and continuity this provides students and parents, and followed suit.

"As a teacher, I've continued to advance my training and have received my master's, specialist, and doctoral degrees in elementary education. This isn't to groom myself for administration. I believe teaching, like law, is a profession. As professionals, we must improve our skills if we are to keep pace with the challenges.

"One of the big challenges is turning around schools with low scores, poor resources, and/or disadvantaged kids. Attracting the strongest teachers to these schools is vital, but currently the best teachers migrate toward better schools, so the polarity between the haves and have-nots continues. We need to excite our strongest teachers about tackling the challenges of the weakest schools. And we need financial incentives to reward those who take on those challenges.

"I hope with all my networking and speaking engagements this year I can motivate other teachers to follow me into the problem schools. Central to teaching is the desire to make a difference. But to make the greatest difference takes more than generalized desire - it takes a willingness to focus one's talents where they are most needed."

MARK PLOTKIN