Editor’s note: Names of teachers and students have been changed.
A student went home to complain to her mom about Mattie Williams, her social studies teacher. The mother went straight out to the school for a conference.
To the mother’s surprise, she found herself sitting face-to-face with her own former teacher from a generation before at the same high school (Williams had since taken on a married last name).
Whatever she was now called, Williams remained a teacher who demanded respect.
“The mom told me that she went home and told her daughter: ‘You’d better do everything that teacher tells you to do,’” Williams told me, laughing.
Teachers not only “add value” to individuals students, they add value to schools as well — especially when they remain a strong teacher in the same school for decades.
When people talk about a teacher being “an institution,” they are usually imagining someone like Mattie Williams who taught for 40 years in the same school.
“I stayed for more than just teaching,” she told me.
And she did a lot more than “just teach” over the years. She bought groceries, clothes, deodorant and toiletries for students and their families; she got kids out of jail; she paid for funerals; she helped kids with pocket money for college.
Her job was a lifestyle choice for her, and often extended well beyond the school hours for which she was paid.
“My husband knew that when a child called me at 3 a.m., he was to wake me up.”
This wasn’t just social work. Ms. Williams recognized that the population she was working with had a variety of needs and she knew that if she was going to have any success with them academically, she was going to have to consider these other needs as well.
She realized that a simple focus on what was in the social studies textbooks or in any particular set of standards was only a piece of what she needed to impart to be a successful teacher.
This philosophy continues to be reflected in her relationship with the school, even after her retirement.
As a history teacher, she understands the importance of the variety of uses of history, to expand student knowledge of the larger world and help build understanding of their own, everyday world. Now, she works with the school archives — named after her — to help students learn about successful alumni from the school.
“Children need to know that people who came before them are doing well,” Williams told me. She feels this helps them value themselves and believe in their own future, academic and otherwise.
Williams continues to play an important role in the past, present, and future of the school and the community. The value she continues to add in not just about her performance in the classroom on the required curriculum, but is also a result of her own history with the school and her own experience with generations of students.
Every school cannot have a Mattie Williams, a strong teacher who stays for 40 years. But we must figure out a way to help encourage this kind of consistency as much as we can.
Unfortunately, we are moving in the opposite direction.
State law requires school districts to treat Ms. Williams as if she has arrived each year as a new teacher with a clean slate. Her worth measured largely by a single year’s student performance.
Those policies do not reinforce the worth of long-term teachers. They ignore their lasting value.
In any system we design to evaluate the pedagogical performance of Ms. Williams, it is incumbent on us to figure out a way to reward and encourage her consistency as well. This consistency, in the long run, may be just as important to the school as any particular year’s classroom performance.