Last week, I introduced a new Teacher Effectiveness programme to our staff. We discussed the key performance indicators of their roles as educators which include, among others: planning, subject knowledge, teaching and assessment for learning, learning environment, pastoral care and student well-being and co-curricular involvement. We analysed what effective teaching means and how we can measure and assess it. I am optimistic that the programme will have a positive impact on the quality of teaching and learning at our school.
However, while working on the definitions, scores and rubrics of the system, I recalled the following newspaper article which reminds us of the impact a good teacher can have on a child.
by Joan Wickersham
“Her name was Grace Knox. She had short gray hair and steel-rimmed glasses, and looked dull, humourless and entirely unpromising. Still, I guessed it was good I’d landed in her class. The other fifth-grade teacher was known as ‘the math one”, whereas Miss Knox was “the reading one.”
As it turned out, she was. She took us into the school library as if it was the world’s most exciting amusement park.
She gave us lists of books she loved, encouraged us to keep our own lists – how many books could we read during the school year? – and, as she got to know our individual tastes, pulled more books out of the shelves for us to consider.
But Miss Knox didn’t just encourage us to read. She made us write. She had a cardboard box filled with pictures cut from magazines, and every three weeks we would choose a picture and write what she called “a creative story.” You could choose a picture of a rocket ship and write about the people who flew it or the creatures startled by its arrival on their faraway planet; you could pick a farmhouse and invent a family who lived there; you could find a picture of a girl in tears and imagine what had led up to them.
Those writing assignments excited me in a way that nothing else ever had. Miss Knox saw it. I don’t remember any big dramatic moment where she told me she thought I’d be a writer someday, but in her class I had a sense of waking up to something important. She saw my interest, took me seriously, and let me know that my work was good, in a way that stayed with me through the years of frustrated bumbling it took to put together a writing career. She was truly a great teacher, in the universal sense (“What are you reading?” became something we talked about at recess, just like we talked about TV shows and boys), but also in the sharply individualized way she had of recognizing something in you before you even knew it was there.
During the years when a child is in school, he or she will encounter some very good teachers, some pretty good ones, and a few who are downright awful. (A college friend grew up in a town where my aunt taught fourth grade, and I mentioned my aunt’s name. My friend said through clenched teeth: “I had her. I hated her.” Wow.
I didn’t like her much either, but – such vehemence, so many years later? “She accused me of cheating on a test,” my friend said, “and I wasn’t cheating.”
Yes, such vehemence, years later: You don’t ever forgive a thing like that). But every now and then a student is lucky enough to land in the classroom of one of the great teachers – someone skilled and hugely gifted in just the right way for that particular kid.
Recently I met a composer and asked how he got started. Was he musical as a kid? Not really, he said. He’d had a teacher in high school who assigned all the kids to write poems. “Everyone except you,” she’d said, pointing at him, “You write me a piece of music.” Forty years later, the composer was still mystified at how the teacher had known to send him in that particular direction. But he remembered the joy of writing the first piece of music, and the startled sense of achievement he’d felt at being so accurately and deeply seen. I’m not sure how well those teachers fit or don’t fit into today’s educational landscape, where the trend is to quantify everything and correlate teaching performance to test scores. But I do believe that we need to keep the system flexible enough to allow for the great teachers. Teaching is a profession, but it’s also a great art. The great teachers are the ones who ignite you with their own passion for a subject. They show you who you are and where you might be going. They’re the ones you remember all your life, long after the test scores have been forgotten.”