What makes a good teacher? Not what “they” say.

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Portrait of mature man and aged female working with laptop during training course

Perhaps you are a teacher and find yourself returning to your classroom .  I hope you enjoyed your three-month vacation.  Oh, not three months?  Do the math, you say?  Not really a vacation, but unpaid leave? Oh, whatever.  I digress.

Many of you are starting back to school earlier than ever because the administration believes that you can cram in more instructional time before the (cue “Da da daaaa” horror music) TESTS.  Perhaps,  if happy-halloween-background_fyav7Tddyou are in a modern, air-conditioned school, this is good news.  And if you are in a school  where students come ready to learn, this is great news.

Hot Key Meaning Fantastic Or Incredible DealsFor many of you, though, you are returning to a century-old building with no air-conditioning.  Now, this is bad news because there is ample research that shows an inverse correlation between rising temperature and learning.

But there is good news, too.  Your eighth graders will be too sluggish to cause any mischief, and no administrator will come out of his air-conditioned office in his crisp white shirt, tie, and jacket to harass you in your sauna-like classroom.

Of course, before the students arrive, you must endure a couple days of inservice meetings about some new initiative, the very same one (with a different name) you were forced to implement  two decades ago, then again one decade ago, and now, today, on the hottest damn August day in recorded history.

You cannot even feign interest in your principal’s announcement that in the 2016/17 school year—twelve months and 125 students from now—you will be writing new standards . . . again.

Girl With Her Head In Her Hands Sad And Unhappy About SomethingYou and your colleagues will try to be good listeners, really you will, but some of them will be playing that game, Educational Jargon Bingo.  They will have prepared a game board by writing  buzz words  in each block, and they will cross out words as the administrators say them:  Core Curriculum; Blooms Taxonomy; Collaborative Learning; Differentiation, Inquiry Based; SLO; Standards Based Grading.

And really, you need to be in your classroom.  The barbarians are at the gate, and you need to ready your ammunition.  You want to have the kids’ books and your syllabus and the forms required by the office already on their desks when they come in.  You know how important it is to set the tone and to begin to bond with the kids rather than put your head down and lick your finger and count out five copies for every row.

You need to be in your room to make it inviting.  You want to post funny pictures to show the students you are a pigood sport—perhaps a bulldog wearing a mortar board.  You want to post inspirational quotes so that maybe the kids will learn something when they’re ignoring you: “Believe that you can and you’re halfway there.”  You want to post the rules because you want the students to know that (this year) you mean business:  “Students have one day to make up work after a day’s absence,” is one lie teachers write on these posters.  And you want to set up your coffee pot because your alarm clock is going to go off at 5:30 tomorrow morning.

What you don’t need is an inservice where you hear about all the ways the staff came up short last year, which is obvious, because “look at the scores, people!”  You don’t need to hear about all the new things your district wants you to try tomorrow, things that you know won’t work, because you are a professional, veteran teacher, after all.

You don’t need an inservice that makes you feel more overwhelmed than you already do.    You know that tomorrow you’re going to set off on a marathon.  You know that for the next nine months, your biological children will often come in second behind apathetic, needy, even endangered students.  You know that for nine months that you won’t be able to sit in church or at a ball game or at your dinner table without having that niggling feeling that you should be doing something for school.  You know that there will always be a tote bag filled with ungraded papers in the trunk of your car.

Portrait of lovely twin girls holding open book over heads

But you accept this because you are a teacher.  You are a teacher not just because you went to college and got a degree, not just because you receive a paycheck from a school, but because you are a teacher deep down.  You were born a teacher.  You know that following a lesson plan format or a curriculum calendar mandated by your district will not make a person a teacher.  You know that being a teacher is not just about what you do, but who you are.

You know that you will have to endure heinous evaluation procedures.  Your principal may come into your classroom and, without knowing anything about your students, judge you based on a checklist, and he will be so busy ticking off these criteria on his laptop that he won’t notice that your hairy eyeball kept a difficult student in check.  Or the smile and wink you gave to encourage your shyest student.

Evil lad holding black spider while going to frighten his classmate at lesson

Your administrator will judge you on how detailed your lesson plans are, how you have tailored your instruction meet the needs of your variously intelligent students, how you have adhered to the curriculum, and how you have implemented the flavor-of-the-day initiative.

Oh, and test scores, of course.  The scores for the student who has missed 42 days of school.  The scores for the student whose mother just died.  The scores for the student who had eggs with a side of weed for breakfast.  Those scores might account for as much as half of your evaluation.

When you receive your evaluation, you’ll feel validated or discouraged, relieved or anxious, motivated or not.  But whatever that evaluation says, it probably misses the most important point.  Teaching is about relationships, and it is unlikely your evaluation will assess that.

Let me tell you a story about one of my teachers who, by nearly all modern measures of teaching acumen, fell short.

If you had sat across from Mrs. Lashley seated at her desk, she probably would not have seemed odd.  Her clothes were nothing outrageous—the plaid wool to-the-knee A-line skirts and long sleeved sweaters popular in the sixties. She had chafed red hands, long fingers with short clipped nails, sparking blue eyes that were old-lady sunken, and pasty skin.  Her long grey hair was hag-stringy.  At fourteen, I thought she was very old, perhaps even sixty.  (Her obituary reveals she was only about 45 at the time!)

No, I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t have thought she was odd if you were just sitting across from her teacher desk.  But everyone at Finneytown High School, students and teachers alike, thought Mrs. Lashley was weird.

But then you would notice that Mrs. Lashley would use a pencil eraser to gain purchase on a student paper to move it across her desk.  If you followed her in the lunch line, you would see that she would make the lunch ladies pick up the money on her tray.

Cheap-Computer-Office-ChairShe sat in an office chair with casters and wheeled around the building, and from building to building in our campus-style school.  She kicked doors open and never touched a door handle. Even if it was cold,  she would wait outside in that wheelie chair and wait for someone to come and open the door.

Her husband, a U.C. professor who was an Ichabod Crane look-alike, always dropped her off at school in a wood-paneled station wagon. They were a childless couple, and I imagined that their relationship was surely platonic. Kids said they saw Dr. and Mrs. Lashley shaking hands as she got out of their car.

Even though I spent every spare minute in the library, I wouldn’t have known what word to look up to explain her weirdness.  At the time I didn’t understand it and didn’t have Google to research it, but now I realize that she had OCD and was a germaphobe. .

She was my speech teacher, and it pains me to say that she was a lackluster teacher.  Her lessons weren’t innovative, and it took her weeks to return graded tests.  But her class quickly became my favorite class Freshman year because I found I could  talk really well, and she acknowledged that.

thespianShe encouraged me to audition for her plays, and twice a year until I graduated I was in one, usually in the lead role.  When the academic awards were given out, I got everything from her:  Best Speech Student, Best Actress, Best Thespian.

I was Mrs. Lashley’s  favorite, I knew that.   I teased her husband.  He always wore Rooster brand ties, so I called him Rooster.  I found out they ate most meals at a cafeteria in Tri-County Mall, and every time I went shopping there, I would drag my girlfriends into the restaurant to say hello.  Dr. and Mrs. Lashley got a kick out of me.

I would go to Mrs. Lashley’s  room after school because I knew she liked me. She swiveled her chair to face me, her chapped hands folded in her lap, and listened to me. One day she asked to see my report card.

I was actually pretty proud to show her.  I was a solid B student.  Bs had always been fine with me.  My brother was the genius in the family, so that spot was gone, and my parents never made a comment about my grades because I was the one with “the personality.”

But when Mrs. Lashley looked at my report card, she gasped.  “Why are there Bs on your report card?  You should never have Bs!”

That one conversation changed the way I looked at myself, and from that day forward, I almost never got Bs.  I was an A student through the rest of high school and undergraduate achool and graduate school.  (Even Mrs. Lashley’s confidence in me could not get me an A in physical education!)

I never saw Mrs. Lashley after graduation in 1970.  I invited Dr. and Mrs. Lashley to my wedding.  They didn’t come, but they sent me a piece of carnival glass.

I just did a Google search and discovered that Mrs. Lashley died just seven years ago, right here in Cincinnti.  She changed the course of my life, but she never knew her impact on me. I wish I had told her.  I would have hugged her if she would have let me.

****************

Teachers, you will do whatever is mandated this year because you are a professional.  You will continue to learn new teaching strategies, separating the wheat from the chaff, because you are a professional.  

But you will try to connect with your students, planting seeds, nurturing growth, pruning the tough parts away, because you are a teacher.  I suspect you didn’t choose this profession just so you could teach biology or grammar or how to read; you chose this path because you wanted to teach kids.

Portrait of smart lad with books sitting in classroom

Remember that every single day this school year  you are changing lives.  These changes may not be evident now, not on tests nor on the surly face of a troubled adolescent.  You may not be there for the harvest, but nothing would grow if you had not planted the seeds.

Have a great year.  Trust yourself to know what it takes to be a great teacher.

A tribute to Mrs. Lashley from Mike Foley:  I had been kicked out of Mr. Brockman’s English class after a major conflict and was put in Mrs. Lashley’s class where I began to soar! She brought her love of poetry to me and she loved theatre, directing me in two plays, Fumed Oak and Arsenic and Old Lace.

Mike Foley, Finneytown Class of '70

Mike Foley, Finneytown Class of ’70

Certainly eccentric to the max, she refused to touch just about anything (except for shaking her husband’s hand when he dropped her off every morning). She had a germ phobia. I mean big time! I remember her in the lunch line, with 35 cents waiting on the tray for the cashier to pick up. I always wondered who put the coins on the tray for her since she never would have touched them herself. It was my introduction to phobias and how not to be frightened by them. We all have a phobia about something. It made her all the more human to me. She would enter the classroom well after the bell by pushing herself on a wheeled office chair but would never touch the door handle and if the door was closed, she’d wait for it to be opened by a student. I fondly remember her and all that she so willingly provided for me. She was among my favorite teachers ever!

Here is another post you might enjoy:  The Last Day of School from the Teacher’s Point of View

Watch these teachers’ flash dance at their beginning-of-the-year inservice.

Watch a fabulous Ted Talk about teaching by, believe it or not, a real live teacher.

Copyright © 2015 Sandy Lingo, All Rights Reserved

 

 

 

19 Comments

  1. This is the reason why we are friends, Sandy Lingo! When I first met you, you read a piece about teaching and I knew we had a lot to talk about. I wonder if people know how much teachers care about their students. Good teachers can’t turn it off when they leave the building. Some of us can’t turn it off after years of retirement. This is an insightful piece…so well written…as all of your entries are. Wonderful!

    • Thanks, dear friend.

  2. You hit the nail on the head! So special were the years as a team.

    • It is amazing what we were able to offer our students. Those were the golden days for schools. What a team we were!

  3. Sandy, I enjoyed your blog as always, but the flash mob was the icing on the cake!!

    • That was a hoot! They have some great singers in that school district . . . hope the State doesn’t cut back more on the arts. Thank you for reading and responding. Miss seeing you at WW.

  4. Sandy, your blog is just doggone awesome!! YOU are a teacher who made a difference for so, so many kids. Thank you! And your respect for your fellow teachers was amazing. I know they thank you, as well. And thanks for the opportunity to see the teacher flash mob – so cool!!

    • You are so sweet! Thank you for reading and responding. My time at DMS was so special to me.

  5. Great job, again. I was amazed at the flash mob. Where did they find all of the singing teachers?

    • They must have a great music department!

  6. ?!!

    • Thanks for reading and responding, Jan.

  7. My 8th grade teacher of science and history turned my life around. She told me I had a high IQ that inspired me to work hard. Prior to that I had mediocre to poor grades and harsh nuns who shouldn’t have been teachers. I soared after that 8th grade teacher who inspired me to pursue science. I am forever grateful to her and wrote her years later to thank her.

    • You’re so darn smart. How any teacher couldn’t see that is beyond me. So glad someone put faith in you. Look what a cool person you turned out to be.

  8. Several things come to mind after reading this latest blog post.
    The sad thing about education is that we are still teaching in a classroom with one teacher and a room of students. This was the way I was taught from 1941 until I graduated from high school in 1952. Our whole educational system isn’t meeting the needs of today’s students born in a different world, with high tech technology and careers.
    Also…..how we, as teachers, are perceived by the administration. They always have “so much to offer.” As I got “smarter” as a teacher……when an administrator would make a suggestion for me to incorporate into my classroom, I would say, “I love that idea, however I am not sure how to implement it….could you come back sometime to show me?” And….they never came back.
    I do sooooo agree with you, that teachers make such an impression on students!!! It could be a lasting good or bad! And being a good teacher, as you say, is your life…you are never finished!
    Your explanation about Mrs. Lashley is just so much “YOU!” I think I almost know her by the way you described her weirdness! I could just imagine you wrapping her around your finger! You have that special kind of “charm.”
    Loved reading this!

    • Aren’t you the clever one! “I love that idea,however I am not sure how to implement it . . . ” You fox, you. I agree that the schools are not meeting kids’ needs. What has happened to special ed and gifted ed in our district is a disgrace. If they took all the money they spend on stupid things and just hired an aide for each teacher, what a difference that could make. Thanks, as always, for reading my blog and for taking time to comment.

  9. I started my career as a teacher and was terrible. Primarily, I was too immature to teach 16-18 year olds when I was barely 22, and it never occurred to me that I could breathe life into the curriculum I’d been handed, and make it my own. I was always sorry my principal evaluated me by counting the number of times I said “um” in the one hour he observed me, and never encouraged me to add my own spin to what I was teaching. I eventually got caught up in the layoffs in 1982, but wondered what I would have been like if I’d stayed. Great piece Sandy.

    • Having the right administrator can make all the difference. If he/she had mentored you, or if a colleague took you under his/her wing, it could have made such a difference. In the beginning of my career i taught 6th graders. I can’t imagine being 22 and teaching 18-year-olds. I am so sorry you had that experience. Thanks so much for reading my post and taking time to respond.

  10. I remember the fun we had at school so long ago. We were family, we cared about one another; we didn’t have to care so much about those “tests.” We could teach what the children needed to know ( as you said: if they were struggling with a particular subject-we reviewed it and worked on it). We could read relevant works of literature and introduce the children to great authors. Oh, the fun I had teaching those kindergartners. Dulles was a great place to be. Thanks for the memories and the beautiful story.

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Sandy Lingo

Life itself is the proper binge.  - Julia Child

A writing friend said that when she reads my writing, she always wants a second helping.

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