In Praise of Teachers. All of Them.

Fairport High School, NYGive NYS Governor Andrew M. Cuomo credit – he’s got us talking about teachers. The governor would make public K-12 teacher compensation commensurate with student test scores, and fire “ineffective” teachers. Despite all the talk, many on both sides are missing the point: effective teaching is not something that can be measured with tests, or tracked on a spreadsheet.

Consider this formula. 20% of a student’s educational success belongs to the teacher, a qualified guide. 20% should be the responsibility of parental authority, providing food, shelter, and materials, vigilant against sloth. The remaining 60% rests on THE LEARNER. Most of us choose what, when, and how we learn. Teachers point out certain things and offer course corrections, but it’s really up to us to put it all together. We know this. Holding teachers accountable for test results assumes they have far more control than they do, could, or should.

Here’s the fourth definition of “teach” in Merriam-Webster: “…to instruct by precept, example, or experience.” I am the citizen/father/friend I am, not because of FACTS I memorized, but because I came into regular contact with men and women who shared their countless experiences and perspectives with me. They were HIGHLY EFFECTIVE, but no for-profit test-selling corporation has figured out how to measure it.

I’ve had phenomenal teachers. I’ve also had not-as-phenomenal teachers, but I wasn’t a phenomenal student, either. (I know I wouldn’t want to stand in front of addled, indifferent, insolent idiots like myself all day.) I was neither the best nor the worst they encountered, in our comfortably middle class, predominantly English-speaking school system. But I was a pain in the ass, and not even a particularly hard case.

I took AP English during my final year of high school. My grade was at the bottom of the class, mostly because I didn’t try. The AP exam was optional, and I had no interest because I didn’t want to waste $120 on the registration. John Baynes, highly effective instructor by precept, example, and experience, urged me to take the test. I refused. Finally he told me to just show up, because he’d covered the fee. Why? “Because only 10% of students score a 5, and you’re going to be one of them.” Sure enough, when the scores came in, mine was 5. Baynes said, “I’ve made an investment in you. Don’t forget this.”

I started college fifteen years after that, maintained a 4.0 undergraduate average on a double major while working full time and raising a family. I continued and earned an MBA. I’ve had several successful careers. None of these can be quantified nor were they predicted by any teacher evaluation system I’ve ever heard of. I could tell dozens of stories about how my teachers made a difference, in ways that had nothing to do with tests. They encouraged, they listened, they advocated. They shared their lives. They believed in me. That’s what I want for my children, for every student in my community, and throughout New York State. That’s education.

Click here for Part II

Hear this piece in Podcast Episode 1