In the memories of the exceptional teacher Mrs. Ruby Ratliff presented by Diane Ravitch in “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” I find pieces of each of my favorite teachers. I think of Ms. Roberts, the intimidating 6 foot tall A.P. Biology teacher who pulled disobedient and disruptive students into the infamous “back room” to give them a good talking to, but showed her soft spot as she reminded us every Friday to “make good decisions.” (She made a point of learning about our personal lives.) I think about my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Riedl and the saddle she gave me that she once used horseback riding as a little girl. I think of my English teacher from my junior year of high school—a woman who students either loved or hated. Her lessons were filled with wit and nuance, and you had to take ridiculous notes to have any hope of getting an A. She was a fan of hour-long essay tests, and graded papers in scrawling purple pen. She taught me what it meant to push myself and enjoy it. I could go on and on about the characteristics of teachers I considered especially influential in my academic career. However, the question that comes to mind as I remember each of their unique impacts remains: What really makes a “great” teacher?
This is a question Ravitch takes the time to explore. After addressing the countless ways to measure teacher “effectiveness,” the conclusion seems to be that there’s no way to measure the greatness of a teacher at all. Unless of course, you turn them all into slaves of a carefully enforced curriculum and rank their ability to teach based upon standardized test scores. Ravitch points out that the “effectiveness” of a teacher changes from year to year, and that though experience and education play an important role, it can’t be measured by these standards alone. As is true with almost everything else we rank in this country, the category is too complex to be condensed into numbers and single letter grades. There is a certain quality in a “great” teacher that ascends definition. Perhaps if we could isolate this something that makes an educator an inspiration, we’d be able to transform the way our children learn and hire only those who possess it. Until we find that magical variable, it makes sense to me that we should open up the application field for teachers to include those with college degrees who might not have necessarily majored in education. In this sense, I support the idea behind Teach for America. I believe that young college graduates have a great ability to make change. However, I also believe that they need a certain amount of training before they head off into inner-city schools and attempt to change the world. They need to take at least one comprehensive Education course. They need to be interviewed extensively and observed in a situation where they are interacting with students. They need to devote more than 2 years to teaching with TFA. Ravitch explains that teachers often become most effective after a significant amount of experience—usually around 2 years. Currently, about half of the TFA candidates leave right after this amount of time has passed—never reaching their full potential. If we could get these promising young educators to dedicate even one more year to Teach for America, the program would likely have much more of an impact. Furthermore, these students need to be recognized and appreciated. They are living and working in conditions and communities that are likely very different from the affluent communities and academic environments they were raised in. I think that this probably contributes to their high drop out rate. It is easy to be disillusioning to be in such a different environment, paid in very low wages, and left feeling like an outsider.
We need to appreciate these teachers, and more importantly, teachers in general. I am reminded of the “broken window” philosophy. I learned once about a psychological study in which the broken windows of a particularly rough part of a city were replaced with smooth glass. Other aesthetic changes were made to the area as well. Trash was collected, landscaping was spruced up, and graffiti was cleaned. After a matter of weeks, statistics were collected. The amount of crime present in this community had visibly reduced. The streets were cleaner, the windows remained unbroken, and people were generally better behaved. If you show someone that you care enough to improve the conditions they live and work in, they will be more likely to maintain them. Furthermore, they will probably work harder and be happier in an environment that offers respect and better resources.
Applying this principle to the classroom, it is logical that more respect for teachers (i.e. higher salaries, access to resources, the ability to be creative in lesson planning, and an instilled sense of trust) could make them even more effective. The concept of the teacher’s union also comes into play here. Following the passionate protests of the thousands who have been sleeping, eating, and screaming at my state’s capitol in Madison this past week, I’ve been thinking about Unions a lot. I understand the argument that Unions could take away the ability to fire “bad” teachers. However, I find that I don’t necessarily agree with it. To me, Unions protect the rights of teachers and state workers who often fall victim to the corporate and capital interests of the powers in control of their salaries and jobs. Unions provide a sort of check and balance system to ensure justice. They give the opportunity of collective bargaining, and support the American ability to disagree that is so fundamental to our country. It’s a sticky issue, and I find myself lost in the debate from time to time. Like the tenure system, unionization has a list of pros and cons. In theory, tenure is supposed to allow a teacher or professor to teach more freely and without fear after they have proven their abilities over a long period of time. Yet, sometimes the privileges that tenure provides are abused. Teachers stop trying, knowing that they will be paid their tenured wages no matter what goes on in the classroom. The same could be argued for unions. I hate the manipulation of these systems, but I embrace them for their intended purposes. This is true too as I look at the education system through the writing of Ravitch. Everything, from standardized testing to charter schooling, begins with good intentions. However, the true meaning of education is often pushed aside. We become too obsessed with numbers and figures and measures of success to gauge if our children are actually capable of living independently and intelligently. We don’t teach them to make connections or think in the abstract. We take the focus away from music and art, and we put it on math and science. Certain skills become key to success in the real world, and others are labeled as hobbies. Despite our constant renovations of the education system, it is clear that all children are not receiving “equal” opportunities. As Ravitch stresses in her final chapters, before we can master education, we need to determine what it is meant to achieve.