I remember talking to the mother of a friend about twenty years ago. She was teaching a course to aspiring teachers in New York as part of their accreditation program. They all passed despite the grade they received in her class, and most, she said, quickly got jobs in the public school system.
In her class, not one of the high school English teachers had read Catcher in the Rye or A Separate Peace, let alone the works of Chaucer or Shakespeare.
Every time I read an article about our failing public schools, I think of this very sophisticated, well-educated, well-read woman standing hopelessly before that class wondering what in the world these soon-to-be teachers were going to teach their students. And then I think that most of them might still be teaching.
“They were barely literate themselves,” she said. And it stayed with me. I thought of her again last week when I read the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Writing Assessment that found only about a quarter of eighth and twelfth graders in our country writing at a proficient level. Only three percent had advanced writing skills.
I thought of her again when the Chicago public school teachers went on strike, cancelling classes for more than 350,000 students, according to the September 21 edition of Time for Kids. One of the biggest issues on the table was, according to the article my son read there, how teachers are evaluated.
I admit that that mother of a friend had high standards for teachers. Maybe you can be a decent teacher without having memorized Chaucer’s Prologue or being able to identify a line from the Wife of Bath. But shouldn’t our standards be high for teachers if we want to raise better-educated children who can read, write and solve math problems at a level deemed at least proficient by the NAEP?
When I read Catcher in the Rye in ninth grade, I didn’t sympathize with Holden Caufield like most ninth graders, but I cried reading A Separate Peace. And I could quote them both and understood why they were considered great literature, even if I didn’t totally agree in one case.
Chaucer in tenth was a real challenge, but Mr. Herscher, my teacher, had such a wonderful reading voice and an incredible knowledge of the text that we couldn’t help but fall in love with it. Reading Shakespeare was like discovering a new planet, and my teacher again brought it to life.
He could not have done that if he had never read the books before.
The same can be said for math. I hated math. It was hard. But my teachers loved it. They were smart. And they pushed me to keep up so that by the time I finished high school, I managed a B in Calculus. Today, in many schools, you can use a calculator during your math tests. What?! The New York Times recently published an editorial claiming that algebra should not be required because it is so hard that it is responsible for high drop-out rates. What many missed in that editorial was the fact that Toyota opened a plant in a remote area of Mississippi where the schools “are far from stellar”, yet they have successfully created a course with the community college there to teach math to incoming employees.
Could it be that not enough math teachers are great at math?
Good schools have great teachers. I was fortunate to have many great ones. And I do not want to offend the hard-working, bright teachers who devote hours to their classrooms and students. But bad schools don’t have enough of them. Often when you hear about a great teacher coming to a poorly performing school, they burn out, and many say it is because they have no collegial support, no other strong teachers to bounce ideas off of or to learn from. That means our standards for who gets to teach our children are not high enough.
So what would happen if we raised the bar for teachers before expecting students’ scores to rise? What if we didn’t hire teachers in any school who did not meet higher criteria? Would we not have enough teachers? What would that tell us? And how would we, as a nation of parents and educators and politicians, respond?
I want to root for the teachers. I am grateful for mine, and those who are now teaching my children. But I am not sure all of our teachers deserve the honor of teaching our kids. And that is what we need to fix first – before we test the kids or change the school day or take away summer vacation or drop algebra from the curriculum. Test the teachers. Hold them up to a much higher standard before we hold their students up to a higher standard. And once those teachers pass the test, and prove their greatness, raise them up. Treat them like heroes. Pay them like experts in their field. Support them.
Teachers should be our kids’ heroes. Young students should aspire to read all that their teachers have read, or to figure out that impossible math problem that it seems, only their amazing teacher can solve. If their teachers haven’t read much or solved much, then how will our students?