Teachers and teaching – searching for “truth”

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April 11, 2011, found me in a hotel near Bernalillo NM. The hotel offered complimentary newspapers, and as I usually do I picked up the local paper, in this case the Albuquerque Journal.

Front page, front and center, was a “Beyond the Classroom” story about teacher Kathleen Cox, and her 12 year old student, Elizabeth, whose Mom is struggling with cancer. [To read the article, and the editorial which follows, you need to sign on for a temporary access pass, which is a very simple process.]

The column was a wonderful story about a teacher going above and beyond. It had absolutely nothing to do with test scores, or classes. It had everything to do with relationships. And most likely Elizabeth was not able to perform academically as she normally might have because of difficulties at home. Kathleen was doing what she could.

I migrated, as usual, to the editorial page or the paper, and the lead editorial was titled “Most Important School Unit is Accountability“. It was an interesting counterpoint to the lead article on the front page. It was about bean counting, and holding people accountable for the number of beans.

Therein seems to lie the struggle in contemporary public education. Relationships versus quantifiable data (“accountability”).

Of course, there has been massive effort over the last few years to figure out some way to get rid of “bad” or “ineffective” teachers. It is some kind of generic label, and I have yet to hear someone say publicly the name of the “bad” or “ineffective” teacher(s) they have in mind. They just must be out there somewhere. Apparently Ms Cox is not one of those marked for extinction, but we really don’t know.

I was in New Mexico to talk with retired teachers of the the National Education Association. Enroute from the airport to the conference center a retired teacher from Nebraska was remembering some teacher who’d made a big difference in her life. It just came up in conversation.

One of my handouts was a list of positive school employee qualities generated by teachers at a 1999 leadership conference I had led. I had asked the participants to think of a school employee who had had a particularly significant impact on them. Having thought of this person (it could be any school employee), I asked them to come up with a one word descriptor of that person: what was it about the employee who made a difference in their lives? In all there were about 60 participants. Only one of the 60 could not think of a single education personnel who he had positive feelings about. I have no idea why this was. The purpose of the exercise was not to probe or value judge but just to establish criteria used by teachers themselves.

In all the teachers identified 47 different characteristics of educational personnel who made a difference in their lives. Here are the characteristics, as identified by the participants: OUTSTANDING-BEHAVIORS-OF-EDUCATION-PERSONNEL

If you look at the qualities that made a difference in school personnel, one is hard pressed to find a single quality that emphasizes directly or indirectly test scores or such as that.

The employees who were remembered were the ones who were very positive in their relationship with their young person.

Is there a need for accountability? Absolutely.

Are there school employees who shouldn’t be school employees? Of course. In a cohort of millions of school employees serving 50 million students, there is without any question at all less than desirable “apples”.

But until the labelers attach names of actual people to these supposed “bad” or “ineffective” anonymous teachers, I am going to challenge them every time to show me the evidence.

They don’t show the evidence, because they can’t…or are afraid that they might be wrong in their judgment.