Who’s your teacher? Do you like her?

The important thing about elementary teachers is that they are nice.  They read a lot of books, come in all shapes and sizes and they almost all wear clogs, but the important thing is that they are nice.

When you talk with a child, one of the first questions asked is the grade they are in.  Next comes,  who is your teacher and do you like her.  If she is nice, they say yes.  If she isn’t, they say something else.

I used to wonder why this was the barometer- nicety.

What about competence, organization, percentage of kids passing the standardized testing?   Kids couldn’t care less.

My all-time favorite teacher is a woman named Kathleen McCarthy, whom I had in fourth grade. She had a lovely round face, long shiny brown hair in a ponytail and just a hint of an Irish brogue. She was soft spoken and smelled like lotion.  I have absolutely no recollection of one thing she taught me to do.  I have no idea how she was regarded by her colleagues or what her class scores were, if she even had any.  She was nice.  That’s why I liked her.

She’s still nice.  I see her now and again at a diner in Cambridge owned by a former classmate and she is exactly the same. (Now I get to call her by her first name!)  She asks about my life and makes the same sort of remarks she made when I was 9. She does not ask if I mastered math enough to balance my checkbook, if I read holding the book just so- another stupid fad created by some over educated idiot- or if I hold the pencil correctly.

The niceness is important because it is what kids remember.  For some students it is what keeps them working hard and enjoying the ten months of the school year. For some its what makes them show up at all. I hated school most of the time as an elementary student but Miss McCarthy made it bearable.  I looked forward to seeing her, hearing her read aloud voices and watching her do cursive on the board so perfectly every time.

The feds have a different idea.  They think that what’s important are scores.  They want to know how many reached this arbitrary benchmark in reading, math and science.  American kids don’t know it but they in yet another war with Asian countries.  Feds want me to teach Johnny how to read fluently up to a certain number of words per minute, to understand a series of comprehension words per minute, to compute a series of math problems up to a certain number per minute, etc and that will determine whether or not I am considered a good teacher.

I almost fell for it.  I immersed myself in data.  I read every book known to man about helping struggling readers and writers using data. I showed the kids graphs of their achievement through data.

But data doesn’t tie shoes, help with a friend problem, give you a snack when there’s no food in the house or remember your birthday.

I don’t have problem with the notion of being held accountable in some way.   As a skilled professional, I should be able to produce growth from day one to day 180, but I can’t pull a rabbit out of a hat.   The problem is that in trying to do just that sort of magic for the data, something may fall to the wayside. The notion of the classroom as a pleasant place first and foremost got lost in all those numbers.

Learning clicks for kids at different times and that’s when it changes from ‘I have to do it’ to ‘I want to do it’. It has nothing to do with which party is in power.

Not all of my teachers would have predicted my success as an adult based on my performance when I was with them. Most only saw one dimension of me, not the fully rounded person I would become. When I told Miss McCarthy that I was myself a teacher, she said she was not surprised. She knew I had it in me all along.

So, now, after nearly twenty years, I have a much more balanced approach to teaching.  I work hard to get them to those benchmarks which some bureaucrat will record someplace in cyberspace, but I also work hard to make our classroom a place where they feel good about themselves as people so that they record that feeling in their hearts.

The first time I saw Barack Obama was in the gym at Stevens High in Claremont.  I went to see that hopey-changey stuff for myself.  He explained the problems with NCLB in terms of parity; the higher educated your parents, the better you did. The inverse is true, which is why my own children barely mentioned that they had a NECAP test while in my school, that was practically all we could think about. I yelled “Thank you!” to him in relief that somebody finally got it.

But he didn’t mention being nice; after all he’s a fed, too.  If I ever meet him again, I am going to ask him who his favorite elementary teacher was and what he remembers about her the most.  I bet I know just what he’ll say.


About Deb Beaupre

I am a teacher and a mother who loves to read and hates to exercise but must. I live in the boonies and have three athletic kids and a cat and a horse.I touch neither. I grow flowers, not food. I am from Boston and so nobody understands what I say but that's okay, because no one around here talks much anyhow. Things I have done I never expected to do:own a horse and be asked to help catch a runaway cow. Thing I will never do: deliver a baby lamb.

9 responses to “Who’s your teacher? Do you like her?”

  1. Berry says :

    Your blog is exactly what I have struggling with recently! I left public schools based on the growing obsession with test scores. I am now at a private school that has also developed an obsession with test scores. Every school I have taught in has been in a critical urban area – high poverty, high crime, low education. This year I had decided that I am going back to my original educational philosophy of educating the whole child and hope that it translates into high test scores. Our kids today have so many problems as our economy continues to collapse and our public resources dry up. I have to insure that Tasha ate breakfast that morning and Jah got enough sleep the previous night before I can even try to teach them. I have to divert Chase’s attention from her abusive father and another child’s from her absent father before I can get them ready to learn. I may be the only seemingly caring adult in their life and it took me years to rediscover that it is more important to be an advocate for my students then the person who generates high test scores. I am considering finding a school where I can simply teach and where test scores are used for the purpose they were intended…to measure outcome. We need benchmarks and goals…no doubt about it. But when it overshadows the “real” work that we do then it gets to be overwhelming.

  2. tara says :

    Thanks for writing this all-important blog post. It made my morning, and I spent most of the time nodding my head and feeling validated. I still remember everything about my nice teachers and love that being nice is my ultimate goal now as a teacher and librarian.

  3. Heather says :

    I vividly remember my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Lowery. I had had a string of tough years with teachers who weren’t very nice. My grades were in the toilet, despite being an avid reader, and just before school was to start, my parents got a divorce.

    I walked into that basement classroom thinking I would slog through another year, but Mrs. Lowery wouldn’t hear of it. She was sincerely the nicest teacher I have ever had. The only think I remember about that year academically was learning about “Bandwagoning” and other types of persuasion. Personally, I learned that I wasn’t dumb, and Mrs. Lowery loved all of us — well maybe not all, but at least some, and I was included in that.

    That Christmas, she made ornaments for each of us in her class. They were ceramic snowmen with scarves. Each scarf had the student’s name painted on it in tiny black letters. I have that ornament to this day.

    I thought about this blog when as I erased my board this morning. I thought of the teachers in my life who had made a difference. Were they the ones who drilled me hour after hour? Were they the ones who made me do countless worksheets, or irrelevant research? No. Of course not.

    The teachers that made a difference in my life were the ones who cared about me. Who were nice to me, and made me feel like I mattered. That doesn’t mean they let me slide. They pushed me, and I responded because I knew they were there to cheer me on, not laugh if I fell or criticize my effort.

    That’s who I strive to be now. I used to worry when I would hear students in the hall say that I was “nice.” That somehow “nice” meant “easy grader.” I don’t worry about that anymore. They know that I’ve got their back, but I’m going to be pushing that back as hard as I can to get them to achieve more than they ever thought possible.

    Thank you for reminding me. It really means a lot.

  4. rhonda j. says :

    Thank you so much for your piece on NPR this morning. I’m a Black woman who has lived lots of places: Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, Memphis. Finally I’ve settled near NYC. My time in Memphis was as close as I got to the type of cigarette-flick experience you described. I decided I am not the type for a small town adventure in America–unless it’s a suburb of a major multiethnic city.

    Hats off to you for keeping the flames of knowledge and tolerance lit against the occasional breeze of ignorance. Thanks again.

  5. Alexandra Blond says :

    Just wanted to let you know how much I appreciated your NPR essay on racism today. I, too, grew up in eastern Massachusetts, but as a white girl I was not friendly with the black children in the neighborhood just a block or two away…it was more of a guarded reserve. My father was an extreme racist, and propagated fear and hatred, which resulted in our estrangement for the rest of his life. We all lose when we are not open to the differences that make us so much richer, when shared. And now, living in rural Maryland, I still find huge barriers to connecting to people of color. Somehow we haven’t moved forward much. But thank you again, and for your blog, which is wonderfully thoughtful and insightful. I agree with you about the importance of actually knowing our teachers, vs. considering them as imparters of information. I hope those in charge come to understand the importance of this relationship, at some point in the future.


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