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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 01/10/2012

What’s missing from education reform debate

This was written by Mark Naison, professor of African and African American Studies at Fordham University in New York and chair of the department of African and African-American Studies. He is also co-director of the Urban Studies Program, African-American History 20th Century. This first appeared on the blog With A Brooklyn Accent.

By Mark Naison

I have been teaching for 45 years. My first students, in the Columbia Upward Bound Program, included a 15 yea Mold who was destined for greatness and a 15 year old who wouldn’t say a word to me or his peers. Being able to connect to both of them, using very different methods, hooked me for life on the challenge of building the confidence and trust required to make learning possible among a diverse group of people.

It is precisely the importance of building trust which is absent from the dominant discourse about education today. Achieving mastery of a fixed body of material is prioritized; opening minds, healing hearts, and building confidence are widely neglected as “soft” attributes not amenable to measurement and evaluation.

Che Guevara once said, “The true revolutionary is guided by feelings of great love.” I would say the same about teaching. “The true teacher is guided by feelings of great love.”

How do you measure love? How do you assess it?
Governments are now spending billions of dollars on complex mathematical formulas to rate teacher effectiveness. Every single measure they have created circumvents the attributes that make teachers love their jobs and which influence students the most
A great teacher gets inside a student’s head, becomes part of the student’s conscience, becomes a moral compass that may offer guidance ten, twenty years after the student was in their class. Things the teacher said during a lecture, wrote in the margin of a research paper, whispered to the student in a private meeting, may come up in the most unexpected times and places. Books, films and songs the teacher recommended may be ones passed on to friends, co-workers and children.
I am saying this from experience as well as inference. I had teachers who inspired me to do things I never dreamed were possible. They did this not only by modeling a passion for learning in their lectures and the way they comported themselves, but by letting me know that, despite my rough edges and uneven writing stills, there was nothing I couldn’t achieve as a scholar if I dared to give myself wholly to the subject I was investigating and kept trying to hone my prose style.
Those teachers — and I will name them because they are all worth honoring — Edward Said, Paul Noyes, Walter Metzger, James Shenton-- provided me with a model of the teacher and scholar I wanted to be. They are with me every time I walk into a classroom.
How do you measure that ?
I know so many great teachers and they are all filled with love for their students and love for their jobs. Every single reform measure introduced in the last 10 years is crushing and demoralizing them.
Someday, we will realize that if we really want to instill a passion for learning in young people, we have to honor and support our best teachers and encourage our most talented and idealistic young people to be teachers for life.
And that means we have to leave room for intangibles like love and trust in how we judge what goes on in schools and understand that the results of great teaching are experienced over a life time, not by tests you administer three or four times a year.

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