School reform can be frustrating. Educators are constantly implementing new ideas for curriculum, school management, standards, testing and accountability, but they can't guarantee success. In part, that's because the most basic -- and probably most important -- aspect of learning comes down to students' interactions with their teachers.
That fact has me thinking a lot lately about what makes a good teacher.
If you were lucky, you had some good teachers. You may have had a few great ones. I did. Take Mrs. Brown, my typing teacher in ninth grade at La Habra High School. She was formal, demanding and totally committed to typing. There weren't interesting discussions in her class, not many laughs, no parties. We just typed. We learned new letters, we practiced, we tested ourselves over and over. We followed her instructions, step by step, until the end of the year when -- miraculously -- we could type.
Was that great teaching? I think so. Most students thought Mrs. Brown was too strict, even mean. But she surely taught us to type.
Two years later I had Mr. Fraese for U.S. history. I had always liked history, and, like most students, I loved Mr. Fraese's class. He engaged us in historical topics through intense discussions, writing and reading. He was lively and had a good sense of humor, so class discussions were often funny and always interesting. I was highly opinionated about politics and took every opportunity to express them in class. Republican Sen. Barry M. Goldwater of Arizona was my hero and novelist Ayn Rand my guru. Mr. Fraese was a liberal Democrat, so we argued all the time. (After I saw more of the world, I ended up with politics very like his.)
He welcomed the discussions, because he loved his subject and wanted us to love it also. He challenged the class not just to learn about events in U.S. history but also to analyze their relevance for our time. We did a lot of writing in Mr. Fraese's class because he didn't believe in multiple-choice tests. So we learned to write as well as think.
I learned a lot that year, but the most important thing I learned was that history matters. Was that great teaching? I think so.
I had a couple of other great teachers as well, each as different from the others in style as Mr. Fraese from Mrs. Brown. They did, however, have a few things in common. They all were able to control a classroom. That's a baseline requirement. If a teacher can't hold onto the reins, not much learning can happen. As I learned later in my own teaching, this control comes less from strict discipline and enforcement than from offering something students want enough to pay attention.
These great teachers also exposed us to new ideas and skills that made life more interesting or challenging or easier to deal with. I can't speak for other students, but I know that each of these teachers connected with my needs. Mrs. Brown did it by providing a structured environment for mastering a rote skill I needed to learn, Mr. Fraese by opening my mind to new ideas and teaching me the joy of stretching my brain. Each changed my life in some way.
Another common characteristic was that each of them had a strong sense of mission. They believed in what they were doing, thought it was crucially important to the world.
I carried the memories of those teachers with me during my 15 years as a teacher at Crenshaw High School in South Los Angeles, where I taught English, speech and debate. Was I a great teacher the way they were? At times, perhaps. I was at my best when, following in the footsteps of another of my great teachers, Mrs. Wallace, I coached speech -- coaxing, bribing and browbeating hundreds of students into writing speeches and then spending Saturdays delivering them at tournaments.
My success stories ranged from Kenny, a nerdy, somewhat pudgy kid who came to life when asked to recite a poem or story, to Florence, a poised, talented young woman whose extraordinary leadership skills blossomed when she recruited and inspired a group of her classmates to spend hundreds of hours after school and on weekends practicing their speeches. (Kenny became an actor in community theater, Florence a teacher and the speech coach at Crenshaw).
I also taught reading to students who were many grade levels below high school. Few teachers wanted to deal with those students, whose needs were great. After a lifetime of mostly unsuccessful struggles with schoolwork, they were not inclined even to come to class regularly, much less complete a steady regimen of assignments. With most of them I didn't feel very successful.
Part of the problem may have been that I didn't have great teachers upon whom to model my teaching for remedial reading. There were some successes, however. Darrell came into the class resigned to being unable to read most books. When exposed to books with young adult topics but easier reading levels, he suddenly couldn't get enough of them. He began trying harder in every class and made it through high school.
I know I had a positive effect on many students' lives at Crenshaw. I showed some of them avenues of possibility they hadn't seen or had ceased to believe in. But I was also conscious of the ways I didn't measure up to the best teachers I'd had growing up. Finally, after years of teaching, I felt I was running out of steam.
One problem for me -- and I suspect for many other teachers -- was that teachers work in isolation.
In a law firm, say, or a hospital or factory, new employees learn from observing and working side by side with their more experienced colleagues. Teachers, on the other hand, rarely get to see other teachers in the classroom; nor, in the crush of making lesson plans, grading papers and teaching, is there time for group discussion, debate or planning.
At Crenshaw, there were many good teachers, but they had little time to collaborate, and the administration was too busy trying to maintain order and coordinate extracurricular activities on the campus to be very involved in curriculum or even to visit classrooms. I wasn't giving or receiving opinions, suggestions, critiques. The result for me was a gradual loss of excitement and energy.
This raises an important question: Can great teachers exist in isolation, or do they require a stimulating and supportive environment of peers and supervisors in order to reach their highest potential as teachers? Some people are born teachers, but the rest probably need the interaction. Maybe that's why some schools seem to have a lot of great and good teachers while others have very few. If a potentially great teacher is not challenged by interacting with colleagues, that potential may never be realized.
For policymakers, all this suggests a much broader approach to improving teaching at a school. It may not be enough to raise the requirements and then send a bunch of highly qualified teachers into a school and expect that school to change. It's more likely, I suspect, that good teachers in an environment lacking support and peer stimulation will burn out before long no matter how many tests they passed or classes they took.
Those trying to improve the quality of teaching need to look closely at how schools are organized and who makes decisions. Good teaching requires colleagues and administrators who make decisions about curriculum and teaching together. It requires teachers and administrators guiding and critiquing each other so everyone gets better. This is the model offered by schools in Korea and Japan. In those countries, teachers spend more time together perfecting their lessons and techniques. By so doing, even though they spend less time with students, their efforts are more effective.
Teaching is a dynamic profession. Each year, each class, each group of students is unique, and teachers must constantly adapt their techniques and approaches. This is hard to do in isolation. By making schools into learning communities where educators stimulate one another to constant improvement, reformers can support the great teachers, help the good teachers to become great and bring even the weakest teachers to competency. It won't be easy, but without strengthening that essential bond between good teachers and their students, even the most ambitious reforms are doomed to fail.