The One Characteristic of Effective Teachers

Today was the day general ed teachers met with special ed teachers in our school to discuss the progress of students who are both on caseload and mainstreamed into our subject-area classes.  These meetings, while regrettably held during our conference periods and responsible for eating up a large chunk of our precious planning time, are invaluable.  You see, it is at these meetings that we gain insight into the inner workings of our students.  It is at these meetings that we get to collaborate with what is for many students the only parental figure in their lives.  It is at these meetings that we are reminded of the single characteristic that effective teachers must possess.

There’s a lot of talk about teacher effectiveness these days.  Our public schools are failing us, they say.  We must hold teachers more accountable, they say.  We must provide students access to private schools and charters through vouchers, they say, despite the fact that many private and charter schools pay teachers significantly lower wages, which leads to high teacher turnover and fewer years experience among staff, all negatives when it comes to teacher efficacy.

In pursuit of teacher accountability, we have turned to quantification.  We have tried to count and measure and neatly classify school.  The problem with this, however, is that what makes a teacher effective cannot be quantified.  It cannot be counted.  It cannot be measured.  It cannot be classified.  At least not by any existing standards.

That’s because what makes a teacher effective is the understanding that “with great power comes great responsibility”.  What makes a teacher effective is what he chooses to do with that power.

What makes a teacher effective is her capacity to hold a human soul in her hands and leave it better off than it was when it came to her.

Does this mean teachers are divine?  Absolutely not.  Teachers are rife with their own flaws.  Teachers make terrible, horrible mistakes every day.  Teachers are human. 

Most new teachers struggle with things like curriculum and standardized tests and administrator evaluations.  They carefully pencil their content standards into the appropriate place on their lesson plans and proudly display the day’s objectives on the board for students and administrators to see.  They neatly organize the data into spreadsheets and analyze it endlessly at staff meetings and professional development sessions.  They brainstorm what they can do to bring the numbers up.  The numbers.  They brainstorm what they can do about those numbers.

And they mistakenly believe that all this makes them effective.

But it doesn’t make them effective.  None of it makes them effective.  It’s certainly not for lack of trying.  They are, by all accounts, textbook.  But you see, that’s the problem.  The textbook.  The standards.  The strategies and the buzzwords and the pages and pages and pages of data.  The numbers.  The things these teachers are doing to be effective are the very things working against them.

That’s because students are not numbers.  They are not percentages.  They are not content standards crossed off a checklist or standardized benchmarks targeted on an exam.  Students are people.  And you can’t quantify what makes a person.

That’s because people have souls.  Students have souls.  They have souls in need of inspiration.  Souls in need of excitement.  Souls in need of guidance and encouragement and love.

These needs — inspiration and excitement and guidance and encouragement and love — cannot be quantified.  They are, by their very nature, what we in the English Language Arts call non-count nouns.  Teachers can pencil in standards and write objectives on the board and analyze data until the cows come home, but they can never — they cannot ever — quantify that which makes a person.

Some new teachers — the lucky few — learn this harsh reality in their first few months or years teaching.  Others slave away at their counting and measuring and classifying, agonizing over why it doesn’t make a difference until they eventually burn out.  Still others make it through an entire career quantifying the people sitting before them to no avail.

But some teachers — the truly effective ones — know their competence lies not in the number of standards and benchmarks they cover in a school year, but rather in their ability to motivate and shape the lives of those sitting before them.  These teachers don’t see numbers when they look out upon the pupils in their rooms.  They see people.  These teachers work hard every day to leave their students’ souls better off than they found them, never quite perfecting the art but always — always — attempting anyway.

Today was the day general ed teachers met with special ed teachers in our school to discuss the progress of students who are both on caseload and mainstreamed into our subject-area classes.  Today was the day teachers in our school were reminded that “with great power comes great responsibility”.  Today was the day I renewed my vow to try my damndest, despite my many flaws and mistakes, to be effective — to leave the souls in my classroom better off than they were when they came to me.

i have the power to hurt or heal