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All Teachers Are Not the Same

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Mrs. Goddard with me at my high school graduation in 1991. 

Today is the birthday of one of the best teachers I know. As I reflect on this extraordinary educator, my mind is drawn back to a piece by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post and I’m struck by how patently unfair it is to my teacher friend, Kelsey.


The piece by Strauss features the entire text of a blog written by Virginia assistant principal Nancy F. Chewning, who is still upset by the TIME Magazine cover depicting bad teachers as bad apples. It then goes on to describe what she thinks being a teacher in America means in 2014.
A friend and former colleague, Kelsey just may be the hardest working teacher I’ve ever known (and as a 41-year-old educator, school board member, and mother of three, I’ve known many).
She is absolutely the kind of teacher that the administrator from Virginia describes in her piece; the kind who gets in at 6:30 a.m., works until 10 every night, spends summers on professional development, coaches softball and does whatever it takes for children to learn.
My key problem with Chewning’s blog is that it speaks of teachers as some sort of monolithic group in which all members are identical and no one differentiates them by their talent, effort or results. It oversimplifies what teachers do and implies somehow that all 3 million live the same professional life.

Anyone who has ever been a student or a parent knows that all teachers are not created equal. I certainly had my share of excellent, average and lousy ones. My high school English teacher opened her home to students for 35 years and continues to do so more than 10 years after retiring.
I still remember when a struggling student decided she couldn’t make it to school for the final exam, Mrs. Goddard brought the exam to her instead. Twelve years after my graduation, she flew 3,000 miles to do a reading at my wedding. She did more than just challenge me to think critically, form good thesis statements, and use evidence in my writing; she became a piece of who I am.
That same year in high school, my geometry teacher spoke in a monotone voice day after day, filling out transparencies on an overhead projector. I don’t remember him taking a single interest in me, nor I in him. There was nothing dynamic or memorable about his class.
All teachers are not the same.

My chemistry teacher challenged me and I worked harder for that class than any other class in my life. She wasn’t as interested in opening her life up to her students as my English teacher was but she was animated and tireless in her teaching of chemistry, and I still appreciate the effort she required from me. Thanks to her, I aced my chemistry requirement in college.
All teachers are not the same.
Now, more than 20 years later, I live in Rhode Island with my husband and three young sons. I was dismayed to learn just this week that 23 percent of Providence’s teachers are chronically absent. By contrast, one of the most beloved teachers at my high school taught 40 years without missing a single day of school.
All teachers are not the same.
My son’s kindergarten teacher was absent from his class 27 days, including the day before Thanksgiving and the two days before the start of February vacation. The Wednesday before the winter vacation starts, he hops off the bus and in his exuberant 5-year-old voice, and asks me to guess where his teacher is going to be the next two days. As I pause for a moment (and the smoke begins to stream from my ears), he yells out “Disney!”
Not only was she leaving early, she felt it was appropriate to share that with a class full of 5-year-olds who were expected to be in school during the two days she’d be gone.
Thankfully, his first grade teacher is one about whom he still swoons. She was almost never absent and her enthusiasm for teaching and learning was so palpable, I can almost still feel it now, three whole years later. Just the other day he reminded me of something she had taught him in 1st grade that he still uses now in fourth grade.
All teachers are not the same.
I understand that the writer didn’t like the cover of TIME magazine and felt the need to defend teachers from what she perceived as an unfounded attack. What I can’t understand is how that cover prompted her to write something that generalizes to a point of being demonstrably untrue.
All teachers do not come in at 6:30 or 7 in the morning. Some do.
All teachers do not stay after school and then work until 10 p.m. at home. Some do.
All teachers do not spend their summers taking classes and attending conferences. Some do.
All teachers do not maintain online gradebooks and respond to emails. Some do.
All teachers do not provide their students with breakfast, medicine and clothes. Special ones do.
To imply that all teachers are alike isn’t only a gross generalization but it devalues the extraordinary teaching and generosity of spirit of our best and most dedicated teachers. Teachers like Kelsey.
We have to stop making honest dialogue and discourse about teachers off limits. We have to stop accepting this misguided idea that one has to be a teacher in order to hold a thought or share an opinion about education. My firmly held opinion that my oldest son’s kindergarten teacher was weak does not take anything away from the phenomenal teachers he has had since.
My belief that current tenure laws protect bad teachers doesn’t mean that I think all teachers are bad. On the contrary, it means that I can easily recognize the ones who aren’t pulling their weight because they are so unlike all the great ones I’ve had the privilege of knowing.
Let’s be honest. There is no way forward for our kids if we can’t even do that.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?

One thought on “All Teachers Are Not the Same

  1. What percentage of a teacher's evaluation should be based on her students' Common Core test scores?

    For many education reformers, many of those things that you mention (coaching softball, being animated, etc.) are irrelevant.

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