As I read the newspapers and hear the noise, this is what I’m learning:

  • Good teachers are crucially important in kids’ lives.
  • There aren’t enough good teachers. Too many aren’t worth what we’re paying them.
  • Those who are no good are disproportionately congregating in the schools of low income kids. That’s why those kids are not succeeding.
  • Therefore, we need ways to measure teachers against one another, to make sure we have more good ones.
  • Thus we have to make teaching as miserable, standardized, and soulless as possible, bleed the creativity right out, so we can have better teachers.

I totally agree with the first one! Yes, good teachers are truly important to kids. I should know, for I had many superb teachers and I don’t live a day when I don’t owe them my thanks.

The people I’m trying to speak to in this blog are teachers, teachers-in-training, and those who care about them (which should be everybody, if we care about our future, but oh well). So how, under current circumstances, do you become a great teacher? Given that just about everything you read is about judgment, antagonism, ignorant assumptions, and punitive measurement, how do you let your light shine?

I think the first step is a vow: I will treat my students with respect.

We should all say this aloud, ten or fifty times a day. Everybody needs a reminder. For the fact is that kids can be exasperating. They don’t turn in their work, they talk in class and ignore you, they put on their makeup or reorganize their book bag or ask to go the bathroom precisely when you’re baring your heart and the soul of a poem, and when you ask for their attention, they can pull a face and sass at you and give you names of all the other people who are so much worse than they are right at that very moment so it really can’t be their fault atall. You want to leave them out in the rain.

But this will not help them learn. Indeed, if you start to hate them, even a little, they will either suck up to you so they’re on your good side, or they’ll make it their business to thwart you as far as they can. Teachers, of all professions, know what it feels like when you’re doing your utmost and all you get is grief—hardly encouraging of that extra measure of effort.

And our students have the added excuse of being kids. This is where (I blush to disclose) I have a distinct advantage over many other teachers, for I was a smart-mouthed know-it-all when I was in school. I do not forget that as annoying as my students can be—and yesterday I had to take a moment in a colleague’s room to hold back the tears of frustration and furor—I was pretty bad myself. I sometimes imagine some of my former teachers smiling contentedly down from heaven on my red face and brimming eyes. So I understand the rebellious spirit.

After all, if the kids came to us rarin’ to learn and laser-focused, they could teach themselves and we’d be out of a job. It’s precisely because they are annoying, chatty, distracted, ignorant, entitled, callow intellects-in-bud that we’re worth our paychecks.

It’s very tempting to go into high dudgeon and decry “kids these days,” refuse late work, teach by packet, sneer and snipe, create picky quizzes and tests that reasonable readers can’t pass, and make the whole thing into a power struggle, but it’s a bad idea. For that isn’t teaching but withholding, ranking, scrabbling for status.

And the fact that our secretary of education, “reformers,” and sometimes even our administrators take that tone with us is no excuse.

So I propose that no matter what else we do, we respect our students, individually, as human beings of unknowable potential. Only in that way can we realize our own potential as teachers, which every kid needs more good ones of.

Doctors have their oath.  We need one, too.

Doctors have their oath. We need one, too.