There’s no such thing as the ‘best’ teacher

(By Charles Rex Arbogast/ AP)
(By Charles Rex Arbogast/ AP)

How often do you hear people talk about wanting or having the “best” this or the “best” that and you have to try to stop yourself from rolling your eyes? Here’s a look at why the notion of “best” doesn’t make sense when it comes to teachers. This was written by Sarah Blaine, who wrote a post earlier this year by  about teachers that went viral under the headline, “You think you know what teachers do. Right? Wrong.” Blaine is  a mom, former teacher and full-time practicing attorney in New Jersey who writes at her parentingthecore blog, where a version of this post appeared. She tweets at @parentingcore.

By Sarah Blaine

Mother’s Day (which was yesterday) is always one of the most frustrating days of the year when it comes to reviewing my Facebook feed because it is replete with one of my pet peeves.  “Thank you to the Best Mom in the Whole World!” and “My Mom is #1″ and “My Mom is the Most Awesomest Mom Evah!”  I hate that.  When someone announces that his mom is the BEST mom, he’s implicitly stating that the rest of our moms are the second-best moms.  Ugh.

So when one of my daughters told me that I was the best mom, I didn’t just say thank you. Instead, I asked if that meant that Quinn’s mom and Max’s mom and Grey’s mom and Zane’s mom weren’t the best moms for Quinn and Max and Grey and Zane. As a former English teacher, I believe that language matters. So I was thrilled when she altered her language to say what I love to hear: “You are the best mom in the world FOR ME!”

Teachers are the same way. As a high school senior, I took AP Calculus. I had a legendary teacher, Mr. Winkler, and I know that many of my high school friends mourned his loss when we read his obituary a few months ago. There was group work in that class, and challenging assignments intended to help students to really dig into why Calculus worked, and so forth. Many of Mr. Winkler’s students went on to study advanced mathematics and related subjects in college. But I wasn’t ready to buckle down and study, and the bulk of what happened in that class went over my head. He couldn’t get through to me. I was too wrapped up in other things, including but not limited to the nasty nightly battles in my parents’ acrimonious divorce. So in the spring of 1991, I took my “Gentleman’s C,” which Mr. Winkler was kind enough to provide, and my failing score on the AP exam, and I went off to college, fully intending to never study math again.

But as a college sophomore, I had one of those life-changing professors, Professor Howard Bernstein, who challenged me and taught me and inspired me and transformed me. He was an adjunct, and the class I took with him was Historical and Philosophical Foundations of Education. We read Rousseau and Plato and Dewey and John Holt. We read E.D. Hirsch and Diane Ravitch (this was many years before Ravitch’s change of heart). We talked about the canon, and standards, and curriculum, and the whats and whys of education. We talked about what it meant to educate, and what it meant to be educated. We talked about what it meant to teach, and what true learning looked like. Professor Bernstein inspired me, and empowered me, and kindled my interest in education — the interest that sparked this blog more than 20 years later.

One of the things we talked about in Professor Bernstein’s class was the achievement gap between men and women in math and the sciences. I got inspired to examine why I hated math. So the following semester I took calculus. I earned an A+. My college calculus professor was decent, but he was not, by any means, a better teacher than Mr. Winkler. The difference was me: I, the student, was ready to learn.

Last year, my daughter was in second grade. I’d heard mixed reports about her teacher (some really positive, some less so), but I always begin the school year by assuming the best. Her second-grade teacher turned out to be a lousy fit for my daughter. But for some of my daughter’s friends, she was terrific. Thankfully, my daughter’s third-grade teaching team has been terrific for her, and she’s gone from, among other things, “hating math” to considering “math teacher” as a future career. But I imagine that there are other kids in the class for whom that is not the case. And that’s okay.

Just as kids are not one-size-fits-all, neither are teachers. Some teachers will inspire some of us. Other teachers will leave us cold. And there’s not a lot of rhyme or reason there. It’s like falling in love. Someone can look great for you on paper, but in real life, you just don’t click.

We all make our way through school: sometimes we have teachers who inspire us, like Professor Bernstein. Sometimes we have terrific teachers we’re just not yet ready to learn from, like Mr. Winkler was for me. And sometimes we have teachers with whom we just don’t click. That’s an inherent part of the human experience. I know it was true when I taught: there were kids I know I reached, and there were kids I know I didn’t reach.

It should go without saying that teaching is an inherently subjective profession, and that different students have different needs at different times in their lives. That’s why I find the attempts to rank and sort teachers by value-added measurement (which purports to be able to tell the “value” of a teacher through student standardized test scores) so preposterous. Value-added measurement leaves common sense in the dust.  It forgets that all important prepositional phrase: “for me.”

There is no more one objectively “best” teacher for all students that there is one objectively “best” mom for all kids. I hope my kids will continue to believe that I am the best mom in the world for them. But when my kids enter a classroom, the most I can realistically ask of their teachers is that their teachers try to differentiate their teaching enough to be the best they can be for my kids. It’s not realistic to expect all of my kids’ teachers to be transformational.

But I do expect my kids to learn a little bit about the human experience in many different classrooms with many different teachers, even (and perhaps especially) in the classrooms of the teachers with whom they don’t click. That is where they will learn that humanity comes in many different sizes and shapes and form, and that no human beings, be they teachers or students, are one-size-fits-all. What will remain consistent for my kids are my expectations: each of my kids will be expected to work hard in every classroom, regardless of how well she clicks with the teacher.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | May 12