While in our school's library the other day, the most recent copy of TIME caught my eye. There was a picture of a big yellow school bus on the cover, with the title, "What Makes a School Great". It immediately set my mind in motion: What has been great about the schools I've been to or worked at? It's hard not to first think of teachers: the good, the bad, and the so many that fall in between. My list of memorable teachers, like your own I imagine, is peopled with imaginative, bright stars who are good educators for a host of reasons: she was so bright, he was so funny, he helped me figure out trigonometry, she really seemed to listen to my ideas, he helped me to write from my heart, etc. Being a teacher myself, I also get the somewhat rare insight into teachers as peers, not just as one of their students. It doesn’t take long to do an inventory. Take 2 minutes. You’ll very quickly create your own playlist of Greatest Hits. My own:
Ms. Kennedy was my middle school math teacher. She was notorious for her strict demeanor, her Suburu Brat she drove to work everyday, and her skill at getting snotty little boys like me to like and succeed at math. And chess!
Mr. King was a storyteller and football coach. His stories about his own personal exploits enthralled us, and before we knew it, he had surreptitiously taught us US History too.
Mr. Powell was an icon at my high school. He’d taught there since the beginning. Literally, from the inception of the school almost 50 years ago. He cruised along on one lung, teaching philosophy and religion, keeping hoards of disinterested seniors interested in Plato and Hinduism.
Terry Kirts was a writing professor from my university. He stands in unique company as being both passionate about his subject AND a good teacher. Something I’ve found to be rare in the ivory towers of academia.
Mary Pat Sharpe is one of the principals I've worked with, and one who led by example. She directed the enormous surge in spirit and academic results at a previously low performing urban grade school. She was an incredible leader who displayed empathy both for her students and her staff, including me as a young teacher (she also set me up with a girl named Corrie Conner, who ended up having a kid with me, which is nice).
Sue Schneider impresses me not only for her ability to wrangle third graders, but for her wisdom in not teaching down to them. She constantly raises the bar for her students. I also see her as a model for those who want to transition into teaching after first having had another career. I don’t think she taught until she was well into her forties.
My sister Beth Brogan I admire for many reasons, but as a teacher, it is primarily for her advocacy for students who may learn differently. She never makes excuses and always seems to find a way for those students to express their abilities and succeed.
Brett Marshall is one of the math teachers who I currently work with. The guy is a routine machine! He is always giving of his own time to help students, and even better, he finds ways of getting the kids to help each other.
Lisa Schalla, my department head, is the rare lecturer who does it so well, that her students are wholly engaged and learning. This is no small feat.
Marika Baren is another teacher I work with who is young, bright and accepts nothing but the best from her students. She is effective and has only been teaching for a handful of years. She gets it, and she is not a product of education schools.
After reading the articles in that September 10th issue of TIME, I can see that much of of the recent national discussion on schools and teaching has been prompted by (among other reasons, of course) the release of the documentary “Waiting for Superman”. The movie, which I haven’t yet seen, focuses on the stories of five families who must enter a lottery to try to “escape their neighborhood public schools for higher performing public charter schools.”
I plan to make this a 2-3 part blog post on some of the ideas and feelings swirling around in my own head on these issues of school and teacher effectiveness. One of the reasons I started with these accolades for my former teachers and colleagues is because they stand out as difference makers to me. It’s not that they are the only good teachers I’ve encountered, or that if you didn’t make the list you sucked. Not at all (though there certainly are some that would fit that description). I just see the impact that bright, talented, hard-working people make and I hope that more good people enter into this profession. Or that those who are already in it are trying to get better.
So much is at stake.
To be continued...