I was not expecting much when I visited Trixi Bicknell's room at Fairfax High School last year. Most of my English teachers in high school were tight-lipped grammarians of the sort I never wanted to see again. It was soon clear that Bicknell, a vibrant woman in her fifties, was different. The mystery was why her school did not care more about her remarkable instructional gifts.
Good classes have a discernible hum, a soft buzz born of scratching pencils, whispered asides, rustling denim and squeaky pubescent voices trying to get the teacher's attention for a question or observation.
Bicknell's room hummed. She had several things going at once. Students were editing one another's work, a method that sounds silly to the uninitiated but has, in fact, produced some of the best writers I know. She demanded successive drafts, as if the students were writing for publication and not just a grade. She even had them discuss Jane Smiley's essay on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in Harper's magazine.
This was a teacher at the top of her game, with a PTA Teacher of the Year award to her credit and a long list of student and parent admirers. She almost made me wish I were in high school again. Yet a few months later, she told me she felt so unappreciated that she had finally let friends at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology lure her away.
Educational administrators are spending a great deal of money trying to discover how to produce more Trixi Bicknells. Experts recommend salaries tied to classroom results, or tougher entrance requirements at education schools, or national teacher licenses. Yet few studies give much weight to the thing the talented teachers really crave: recognition and respect.
What pushed her out of Fairfax, Bicknell said, was a single ill-considered word on her last evaluation. In Fairfax, the highest rating on the form is "exemplary." Bicknell's assistant principal marked the next highest rating, "skillful." When she asked about it, noting the exemplary marks given to teachers less successful with students, she was told she had not had enough of an impact on the whole school.
In an age of new national standards and state-written tests and enough education reform plans to drive even the most energetic superintendent insane, teachers are being asked to assume more responsibility for change. They are increasingly being asked to write curricula or train new teachers or attend seminars or even help principals make hiring and purchasing decisions.
A teacher like Bicknell who gives first priority to her students risks being called "uncollegial," a faculty room expletive. Educators who try to teach their students as well as join the committees and write the reports deserve exemplary ratings. Sadly, their work is often shelved with no further action.
The best teacher I have ever known, Jaime Escalante of Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, was also the most uncollegial. He refused to attend faculty meetings. He shunned the teachers' lunchroom. Anything that took him out of his classroom was to him a waste of time. And yet, mostly by example, he remade his inner city school.
Al Ladendorff, the social studies teacher who most influenced my high school years, told me as he neared retirement that he felt a lack of appreciation. He had the same high standards and no-nonsense enthusiasm that Bicknell and Escalante had, and he paid for it. He was chided for grading too hard. His discipline decisions were not supported. He saw too much emphasis on making parents and children comfortable and too little on learning.
Fairfax High restored the top rating to Bicknell after she complained, but it was too late. No one tried hard to stop her transfer. Some colleagues, I suspect, wrongly wrote her off as ultrasensitive, or as someone who moved for the money, since Jefferson teachers get a 7 percent salary premium over the standard pay. The administrator's evaluation was understandable, since school officials are required to rate teachers on their work outside as well as inside the classroom.
Occasionally at a PTA meeting someone will suggest publishing a guide to the school with ratings of individual teachers, and be rewarded with a smattering of derisive laughter. Some high school journalists, less cynical than their elders, have actually tried to do this. In all the cases with which I am familiar, they haven't gotten very far.
Yet I still think it can be done, particularly if parents and students publish something -- say, a newsletter or Web page -- with their own money out of reach of school district lawyers and union representatives. Identifying bad teachers is probably unworkable. But what about an annual review of the best teachers in each school? The parents and students I know are astute judges of classroom talent. Disseminating such information can render insignificant any evaluation that fails to value someone like Trixi Bicknell, and give many other teachers like her just the boost they need.
Jay Mathews's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.