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.