In her recent review "How, and How Not, to Improve the Schools" (New York Review of Books, 22 March 2012), Diane Ravitch notes that experienced teachers in America are rapidly leaving their jobs. Ravitch says it's "in response to the test demands of No Child Left Behind, which reduce professional autonomy."
Probably. It was certainly the principal reason I retired from public education in 1997. It was getting less and less fun, every year. I watched helplessly as the curriculum constricted more and more, narrowing its focus onto a few "measurable objectives" that the test-creators could handle.
But Ravitch makes another point about the flight of the vets: "we are losing the experienced teachers that students and new teachers need."
It was my great fortune that year to be on the faculty with some wonderful veteran teachers, people whom I greatly admired. I wanted to be like them. I wanted the kids to feel about me the way they did about them. I wanted my classes to be as much fun as my colleagues' seemed to be.
This was a revelation to me--that classes could be fun. That teachers could laugh a lot. That kids wanted to go to those classes. That they learned there.
There are three people I want to write about the next couple of days--the three Aurora Middle School veterans who showed me a variety of ways to be a good teacher. This was another revelation--that there was more than one way to do things, to be successful, to be a highly effective teacher. These three people were temperamentally very different from one another. But they shared a passion for the job, a profound affection for kids, an enjoyment of the hours they spent at school.
The first--Willetta Thomas (her picture is above from our 1966 yearbook). Mrs. Thomas. I'm not sure I ever called her "Willetta." Maybe I did, but certainly not at first. She had about her a dignity that commanded respect from all of us--students and teachers alike. But she had a wicked sense of humor, as well. Loved to laugh in class, in the teachers' lounge.
She was our reading teacher. She worked mostly with kids who had reading problems (the rest of us were supposed to teach "reading skills" to the other kids; I was never sure what that meant and just sort of muddled along). In her room she had set up a number of stations where they kids did various tasks (worked with machines, in some cases), then moved along. Always--always--Mrs. Thomas was with them. Teasing, laughing, encouraging. She hugged weeping children, talked quietly with angry ones.
I watched her classes sometimes. The kids came in; she spoke with them calmly about what was going to happen that day; she might share a story she'd read in the paper--or seen on the news; she asked about what they had learned since the last class. Then off they went--right away--doing what they were supposed to do. I was dazzled. Why couldn't my room be like that? My classes like that?
It didn't take me long to figure out the obvious: Those kids loved Mrs. Thomas.
And soon ... so did I.