Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Sunday, February 26, 2012

"A Good Coach Is One Who Puts My Kid at Shortstop--and Lets Him Hit Leadoff": Thoughts on teacher quality

From Mr. Peepers, a 50s TV show about a teacher
Much controversy these days in New York about ratings of public school teachers.  Today's New York Times ran a story about the results--and included this: "The ratings have high margins of error, are now nearly two years out of date and are based on tests that the state has acknowledged became too predictable and easy to pass over time" (19). 

But then the article goes on--as if to say, "Yeah, these ratings don't mean a lot ... but still ...."

Here's a link to the entire article: Teacher Ratings in NY

And this brings me to a story ...

Decades ago, one of my very finest students (I'd taught her as a freshman) told me on her graduation day that I was one of her two favorite teachers.  (That was nice.)  Then I asked: "Who was the other?"  And she named someone so totally different from me--personally, pedagogically--that, well, I was aghast.  (In my mind, it was as if someone had told me her two favorite figures from history were, oh, Queen Elizabeth I and Lizzie Borden.  I exaggerate--you get the point.)

It took me a long time to understand her feelings.  I felt this other teacher was bullying, sarcastic--a possessor of any number of other qualities I found offensive.  And yet ...  in my student's mind, we were Siamese twins.

And, of course, this is what I realized (and should have known all along): "teacher quality" is a highly subjective phrase.  In so many ways, a good teacher is one whom we consider a good teacher.  Every year, I had students who liked me, students who didn't; students who learned well from me, students who didn't; students who would remember me fondly, students who wouldn't ...  Even in the best of classes, my student evaluations always featured a harsh critic or two.  (Though no kid was ever as harsh with me as I was with myself.)

I learned, as well, that for many parents, a good teacher is one who does a good job with their kid.  (This is a corollary of the notion that a "frill" in the curriculum is something your kid isn't good at.  And that a good coach is one who plays your kid a lot.)

The recent obsession with measuring teacher quality is deeply flawed with one troublesome assumption: We think we can measure and quantify anything.  We can't.  But we insist on trying, and so we measure only what we easily can measure.  Does a kid know certain vocab words?  Can she multiply decimals?  Can he name the state capitals?  Can she identify the main idea in a paragraph?

I'm not arguing that such questions are useless; they're not.  But they do not measure a student's achievement; they do not measure teacher quality. 

Great teachers are rare--I had only a handful in my long school years.  But good teachers?  There are many of them--everywhere.  (Just as there are weak ones everywhere: my older brother told me about some duds at Harvard.)  They are knowledgeable; they like kids; they know how to get things done; they have multiple ways to explain things.  They embody, to one extent or another, those old virtues I learned in the Boy Scouts: they are trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient (to their principles, if not principals), cheerful (except on Mondays), thrifty (they'd better be!), brave, clean (?), and reverent (not religious, reverent).  And--most important, perhaps--they are not all alike.  Sometimes, they are profoundly different from one another.

We need to encourage good people to join this profession.  (Given the current climate, I would not advise anyone to do it.)  And we need to ease the way in, too, for people who do not have traditional teacher training.  And here's one grim personal example of how we make it hard ...

I retired from public schools in 1997; a couple of years later I thought it would be a good idea to renew my Ohio certificate--just in case.  But, oops, I'd let it lapse.  I wrote to the state department about what I needed to do to renew it; they told me I had to go back to school and take some courses.  I had taught about thirty-five years at that point; I had a Ph.D.; I had published books and hundreds of articles; I had good references from my former employers.  But I could no longer teach in an Ohio public school.  (That's the reason I went into private education later on.)

By the way: the letter from the state official telling me I was no longer qualified to teach English in a public school had two spelling errors and several bad usage errors.  Not hard to measure that!

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