Want the Best Teachers?

Ash & Mrs. Hacker

For a moment I was brimming with hope. In a rare occurrence, an article about education made the top headline in the online version of the Washington Post homepage today. This was a particularly striking event in light of other significant news this week—the Benghazi hearings, Hurricane Patricia, the death of an American serviceman in a fight against ISIS.

I clicked on the link to read more. Writer Lyndsey Layton gave this report:

The study analyzed tests given in 66 urban districts in the 2014-2015 school year…It portrays a chock-a-block jumble, where tests have been layered upon tests under mandates from Congress, the U.S. Department of Education and state and local governments, many of which the study argues have questionable value to teachers and students. Testing companies that aggressively market new exams also share the blame, the study said…“Everyone is culpable here,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools [the group that commissioned the study].

Layton reported a wide variety of reactions to the study, and almost all of those she interviewed sought to lay blame or deny responsibility. I was struck by the irony that none of the major players want to be held accountable for the mess that has been made of trying to hold teachers and schools accountable.

As I neared the end of a lengthy article that took stamina to finish, I continued to hold out hope that someone would propose a solution—or at least talk about the importance of working together to help our nation’s children recapture the innate love of learning that each human being is born with. But when I scanned the readers’ comments, my hope evaporated in the breath of a deep sigh.

Educators grapple every day with the complexities of teaching the children who come to us. Like all professions, we have a range of talent. When my daughter was in kindergarten, a principal said to me, “Probably 5% of teachers are good for every student they teach, and another 5% are horrible for every student unlucky enough to land in their classes. And then there are the rest of us, the 90% who connect with some kids and not with others.” I suspect the percentages at both ends are smaller, but the wisdom of what she said has stuck with me.

That year my daughter had a wonderful teacher. In other years when she was not so fortunate, I would try to remind myself of my principal’s words, though I’ll admit that I wasn’t always successful when I felt she got a teacher in that bottom percentage. All parents want the best teachers for their children, but we’re far more likely to get that 90% in the middle. In a perfect world, every teacher would have the talent of the best teachers. But in the imperfect world we inhabit, all the standardized testing on the planet won’t give us the teachers we’d like our own children to have every single year.

When my own child isn’t involved and I can look objectively at my colleagues, I know that the majority of teachers I’ve met came into the profession caring deeply about students. And when I look through both lenses at the same time, I see many similarities between being a parent and being a teacher. When my daughter was a child, there were times when I knew I’d done exactly the right thing, and there were other times when I couldn’t reach her. Being a parent was sometimes exhilarating and sometimes exhausting. And when I was depleted emotionally or devoid of ideas for helping her, I was fortunate enough to have a support network that would step in to lend a hand. Her father, her stepfather, my extended family, my friends, my church family, her school staff, a doctor or nurse, and sometimes perfect strangers—I could not have survived parenting even what I know in hindsight was a relatively easy child without the support of the village.

Teaching is like that, too. So how do we lift up teachers, the vast majority of whom want to do a good job? How do we work together in a positive way to help them do their best with the skills they have and to build more skills when they’re depleted? Because if we want even the best teachers to survive, we have to lift them up in human ways that standardized tests cannot. Yes, accountability is important. But humanity is essential.

How can we realize the hopes we all share for our children?

One thought on “Want the Best Teachers?”

  1. Estelene, I so appreciate what you share about education and your own experiences as a professional in that field. I do not doubt that you are and have been in the top 5% given your love of knowledge, your enthusiasm for learning, your values , and your personal journey in which education enriched your life in so many ways. I loved the comparison of teachers to parents. As hard as we work and as much as we want to get it right for our kids, we don’t always. I wish I had insights/solutions to share, only thing is can offer is that you check out the work of Pedro Noguera, Professor of Education, now at UCLA. I admire his research and thinking about these complex problems. Thanks so much.

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