Building the Perfect Teacher

I wasn’t all that excited about spending a rare vacation day as the guest speaker at a high school summer class this week. But it was irresistible. The topic was: Teachers. And what we wanted. And why. And I could give my opinions.

I said to the kids, “You’re building the perfect teacher. Give me a word that describes this person.”

They started shouting out: Caring. Fun. Smart. Competent. Inspiring. Energizing. Understanding. Interesting. Fair. Respectful. A Good Listener. A Good Student.

(“A Good Student? “ I asked. “Yes,” said a girl. “I want a teacher who’s always learning.”)

Wow. I mean, really. Wow.

I explained that I represented 3.2 million educators who wanted to be all those things.

I explained that we live in a world where hundreds of thousands of politicians wanted us to be all those things. Business Billionaires. Rocket Scientists. Mommies. They all want us to be all those things.

The kicker is ‘How’.

I told them that in my opinion, there are three basic groups. All three believe they are right. There are good people in all three. In my opinion, two of them are wrong.

One group is what I call the Good Old Days Reformers. They want to go back before the testing insanity, and everything was just fine. We made out report cards. Parents signed them. Public schools served their neighborhoods. Rules and regulations worked for most kids. You can’t ask more than that.

Principals hired teachers after their student teaching. They got raises based on their years of experience and advanced degrees. It worked in the past. It’ll work in the future.

Another group is the Corporate Model Education Reformers. They believe schools should be run like efficient businesses. Regulations stifle creativity, so schools should be deregulated and given private charters and allowed to create an environment that serves, not a neighborhood, but a group of students who may come from anywhere. Different schools would “supply” different “demands” of different groups of parents. Schools would compete, thrive or fail on market supply and demand.

The Corporate Model supports on-the-job teacher training. Find excited young folks willing to give teaching a try. If it doesn’t work out, fire them and find new excited young folks who want to give teaching a try. They believe individuals work best when they get prizes for hitting individual targets, so teachers’ pay would be based on their class test scores, and the best teachers would make more than the mediocre teachers. It works in a business. It’ll work in a school.

The third group is the Whole Child Reformers. (I wanted to model the word “bias”, so I warned the kids that this is the group I liked.) The Good Old Days never worked for every child. And the most important things I ever taught can’t be found on a Corporate Model standardized test.

A Whole Child Reformer cares about a child’s mind, body and character. A Whole Child Reformer wants to be an excellent teacher, but knows that’s not enough. We want an excellent system of excellent teachers.

We know that if you want to increase the chances of a poor child being a good reader in 6th grade, you make preschool available to her when she’s three. We know that the class size of a 3rd grader who needs a little extra help in times tables will effect whether that kid is ever going to make it to AP Calculus.

We know we need parents. So if parents have stopped coming to Back-to-School Night, Whole Child teachers don’t throw up their hands and say, “The parents aren’t coming, so there’s nothing we can do.”

They say, “The parents aren’t coming, so what are we going to do different to bring them back?”

A Whole Child Reformer wants something that the Good Old Days and the Corporate Models never dreamed of. We want responsibility for action.

We want to be responsible for creating a place where we will be Caring. Fun. Smart. Competent. Inspiring. Energizing. Understanding. Interesting. Fair. Respectful. A Good Listener. A Good Student.

We want to take control of designing and assessing and collaborating and mentoring and preparing. For too long, teachers and our support staff have been the objects of someone else’s action.

I don’t want to be the object of the verb. I want to be the verb.

I want to be responsible for the action. I asked the class, “How would you build the Perfect Teacher?”

Oh, my. All the hands were up! There was dissension and rhetorical questions and argumentative answers and proclamations on what would work and not and what if we took this part from that group and that part that I didn’t even think about and why not and on and on.

And they started to learn. It was a good day to take a vacation from my vacation.

3 Responses to “Building the Perfect Teacher”

  1. Harold Shaw

    Lily – you have stated in words that I have been attempting for the past 3 years, I have skirted around them, but never coherently put the three together. I don’t want to go back to the teaching methods that were prevalent in my youth, I don’t agree with the corporate growth model, but think there is a place for some testing for diagnostic purposes, not for punitive purposes (but human nature and the competitiveness of some would not allow this), so that is a problem, but not insurmountable.

    Whole Child Reformer or Student-Centered or what ever the current buzzword is the direction we need and can go. With the advent of technology, education can be more individualized, but it will never replace the need for a competent and caring teacher.

    Thank you for putting into words, what I have tried for so long to do.


  2. Diane

    Thank you! I am so glad to hear someone from NEA putting this into these words. ASCD initiated the Whole Child campaign, and it doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere. They are good with curriculum matters, but maybe they need NEA’s political savvy. Whole Child Reform needs to be the buzz word, but one that means something.

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