Editor’s note: Names of teachers and students have been changed.
One of the things I want to do through this series is to expand the discussion of a teacher’s value. We cannot let the worth of teachers be defined narrowly by the test scores of their students. We need to consider all of the different ways teachers have positive impacts on the lives of their students before we choose the criteria with which we judge who is doing a good job as a teacher and who is not.
One of the best ways to do this is to hear from teachers themselves.
I hope to put these stories in context. I will tell you about teachers I’ve spoken to, and I will share with you their stories. I want to show the breadth of ways teachers affect their students.
I walked into a teacher’s classroom near the end of the year and saw him explaining bank fees and ATM charges to a senior who was about to graduate.
This teacher didn’t have any seniors in his classes. I knew it wasn’t a current student, but rather a past student who saw the teacher as someone he trusted. The interaction I was watching was definitely adding value to the student’s life in a way that has little to do with school curriculum, and definitely isn’t counted in FCAT scores or school grades.
Those little interactions, those bits of knowledge transmitted are at one end of what teachers do.
On the other end, we have people like Victoria Soto, who gave her life to save students during the shooting spree in Newtown, Connecticut. Her actions did more than add value to children’s lives. She preserved their lives. These actions also fall outside the bounds of what we measure as important to good teaching.
But the meat of teachers’ work is somewhere in between these two. And that’s where most of our stories will focus. We will look at the daily examples of ways teachers have positive effects and use these as a context to explore how we think about what teachers should and what it looks like when they do it well.
We expect a lot from our teachers and our schools. We expect them to do academic work, to build character, to transmit values and to protect children.
Please don’t mistake this expanded notion of teaching as a way to throw up our hands and say we can’t measure good teaching. We can, and we must. But before we measure it, before we can have an honest conversation about it, we need to decide what we want teachers to do.
And the best way is to start with their stories. I’ll start with one of my own. (In all of these stories, I have changed the name of both teachers and students to protect the privacy of those involved.)
When I think of the hundreds of children I’ve dealt with and which I believe I’ve had some valuable effect on, Andrea usually comes to mind first. I didn’t do much more than follow my legal obligations, and my effect on her had nothing to do with the world history class she was taking from me. But, it was deeper and more important than any history I believe I’ve ever taught.
I read in Andrea’s classroom journal an entry she had written about the sexual abuse she was suffering at the hands of her step-father.
It was my third year, and luckily I had been trained well enough to know the kinds of things teachers legally must report when evidence presents itself. These include suicidal thoughts or allegations of abuse.
I had also learned it is best to let children know early on what you must report. That way, if they tell you something, you know it’s because they want it to be known and they want action to be taken. This makes it easier (easier, not easy) to take action that you know may completely disrupt the life of a child.
As soon as I read the journal entry, I knew what I had to do. I went to the school’s trust counselor. I was with her as she made the call to the abuse hotline. I let Andrea know the next day that I had passed along what she had written, and I let her go speak with the counselor.
I then stepped out of the process and left it to the professionals who knew what they were doing. I figured Andrea would share with me what she needed to, and the next day she stayed after class and told me about coming home and having her house surrounded by police cars; she told me she was glad that he was gone.
We became closer after this experience, and both Andrea I were lucky for the great counselor at the school and for Andrea’s strength.
Andrea remained at the school where she eventually thrived as a student. I left the school for a year, but I returned and was fortunate enough to see her a few years later when she was a senior. Not only did I get to see the positive outcome, but I got the thank you that we teachers don’t usually get.
This experience is, unfortunately, not unique. I’ve had other students who required similar interventions, and many of my colleagues have stories like this and a lot worse.
For many children, teachers are a first line of defense. We are sometimes the only “outside” adult who gets to look into their lives for signs of trouble. We are informed of our legal obligations to do so, and the lucky ones of us get training in how to identify signs and how to humanely do what is required by the law.
Such responsibilities are one of the most important parts of our profession. And yet, they rarely, if ever, come up in discussions of good teaching.
If we want to have a serious discussion about the value of teachers, then we need to acknowledge these extra-curricular responsibilities. We need to make sure that such interventions on behalf of our children are at least on par with a teacher’s ability to get a child to use commas correctly or identify the hypothesis in an experiment.
Jeremy Glazer is a Miami-Dade teacher writing a series about classroom issues for StateImpact Florida. Want to sound off on something Glazer has written? Want to suggest a topic for him? Send us an email at Florida@stateimpact.org and put “Classroom Contemplations” in the subject line.