The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What’s missing from education policy debate

By Jack Schneider

I was a pretty good high school teacher.  I wasn’t perfect, or even great.  In fact, I doubt that I was the best teacher on my end of the hallway.  But I knew my content area—history—and I was passionate about it.  I had high expectations and was a rigorous grader.  I pushed my students to grow as readers and writers.  And I spent endless hours revising my lessons.  So it isn’t entirely surprising to me that every once in a while, even nine years after having left the classroom, I hear from my former students.  What does surprise me, though—and what never ceases to surprise me—is the fact that my former students never mention the things I felt I did well.  A decade after the end of our time together, what they say mattered to them was something I hardly ever thought about as a teacher: care.

Current policy discussions about teaching focus almost entirely on what teachers know and the content they deliver.  Reformers and policymakers talk endlessly about how to recruit teachers with higher GPAs, who have graduated from more prestigious schools, and who possess greater content-area expertise than the current labor force.  They talk about stronger curriculum standards and better-aligned accountability tests.  They talk about college-readiness, and job-readiness, and 21st Century skills.  And they are not wrong to be concerned with those things.  I believe that I was at an advantage in the classroom because I had a strong academic background.  I believe my students benefitted from a challenging curriculum and that my assessments allowed me to track their progress.  I believe I helped them develop proficiencies that would benefit them in their lives and in their careers.

But what policy elites don’t talk about—what they may not even know about, having themselves so little collective teaching experience—is how much relationships matter in our nation’s classrooms.  Yes it matters that history teachers know history and chemistry teachers know chemistry.  But it also matters that history teachers know their students, and that chemistry teachers know how to spot a kid in need.  It matters that teachers have strong academic backgrounds.  But it also matters that they can relate to young people—that they see them, hear them, and care for them.

To be clear: I am not saying that academic rigor is in any way a matter of small importance.  Instead, what I am saying is that our current policy dialogue gives the distinct impression that academic rigor is the only thing that matters.  And I am saying that such a message is highly problematic.  It concentrates our attention on the characteristics that promote the acquisition of knowledge, sure; but it does so to the complete exclusion of the characteristics that make a difference in kids’ lives.

The average high school graduate has been in the classrooms of roughly 40 teachers.  But which ones are remembered?  Those who showed us a broader world, certainly.  But also those who showed us kindness.  And so, yes, I remember my eleventh-grade English teacher, who consistently tore my writing apart until I improved; and with her help I did improve.  But I also remember a Spanish teacher who visited my father in the hospital, a fourth-grade teacher who hugged me once when I was on the verge of tears, a math teacher who told me that she believed in me, and a history teacher I wanted to emulate.

My best teachers taught me how to read, write, and cipher.  But they also treated me with kindness and humanity.  They made me feel like I was welcome in their classrooms.  They instilled in me the sense that I mattered.  They inspired me to grow up and be like them.  Where, I wonder, are those kinds of characteristics in our current policy discussions about teacher recruitment?  Where is that in talk among so-called reformers about overhauling teacher training?  Where are those traits in our evaluations of the “value” added by teachers?

A student recently wrote to tell me that he is about to embark on a career as a teacher.  And I admit that I was surprised.  As a 14 year-old he was slightly out of control.  He was loud and occasionally inappropriate in the classroom.  He struggled to reliably complete his work.  He dodged consequences.  As such, many of his teachers didn’t have much patience for him.  But I did, because I remembered being just like him as a 9th grader.  So we talked a lot, though I was convinced it didn’t make the slightest difference.  At his core he was a good kid, like the vast majority of young people are.  And it was clear from reading his email that he had eventually found himself.  His note ended: “Thank you for being the role model I needed.”

Reformers imagine that American students need a lot of things from their teachers.  They need more instruction in math and a stronger English Language Arts curriculum.  They need teachers with stronger training in the disciplines—particularly in STEM subjects.  They need teachers who rely on data and who can, in turn, produce measurable results.  But what policy elites ignore is the fact that, for many young people, the thing that matters most in the classroom is simply that teachers treat them with dignity and respect—that their teachers see them as human beings and model the kinds of behavior that we want all adults to engage in.

Education reformers believe that they know what it takes to build a better teacher.  And they aren’t entirely wrong.  But they aren’t right, either.  Because what they have lost sight of—or what perhaps they never had in their vision at all—is the human aspect of education.  Where is the talk of care in policy circles?  Where is the talk of teachers as role models?  Those are the characteristics that actually make a difference in kids’ lives; and whatever reformers think of the current teacher labor force, they might learn something from sitting in a few real classrooms.