By Jane Dimyan-Ehrenfeld
She wouldn’t want me to tell you this, but I will anyway: I have a picture of my daughter’s kindergarten teacher dressed up in Cat in the Hat pajamas. In the picture she is grinning and giving a thumbs up. It is hilarious.
The reason I have this picture is because one recent afternoon my daughter – just starting her kindergarten year – fluently read aloud the first two-thirds of “The Cat In The Hat.” I was so bowled over by her extraordinary reading progress I immediately texted her teacher, who promised to put on her Cat in the Hat pajamas in celebration, and then followed up shortly afterwards with a picture to prove her dedication. My daughter was elated, and grabbed the phone so that she could send her own message: “I love you,” spelled perfectly.
As you can imagine, I too love my daughter’s teacher, Mrs. Brooks. She is extraordinary: funny, smart, unbelievably organized, authoritative yet kind, gentle, loving, thoughtful, and unfailingly passionate about her profession and her students even after many years in the classroom. Several months into the school year, using what I know from one open house, one parent-teacher conference, a host of messages back and forth, word of mouth, and my observations of my daughter, I can tell you this: My daughter is learning a tremendous amount in Mrs. Brook’s classroom.
Although she is an anxious kid, she loves school, not only because in her classroom learning goes hand in hand with joy and inquiry and creative exploration, but also because she adores Mrs. Brooks, who knows how to solve my daughter’s nervous stomachaches with a hug and a little bit of extra attention, who understands and honors her strengths, and who makes her laugh and teaches her funny sayings like, “Wake up and smell the cappuccino!” My daughter has watched Mrs. Brooks and learned kindness and compassion, becoming an important friend to a student with severe developmental disabilities in the classroom, no doubt in large part because she saw how much Mrs. Brooks. adored this little boy (Mrs. Brooks cried when he left for another school, and threw him a beautiful party on his last day). Where other teachers might have been relieved to lose a high-needs student from their rooms, Mrs. Brooks mourned the loss of a sweet kid, and my daughter watched this and learned.
My husband and I have become the targets of neighborhood envy when we say that Mrs. Brooks is our daughter’s kindergarten teacher; in our community she is legendary. She is always smiling, always available to talk, and she never seems tired even though she teaches all day and then goes home to care for her own children. She has absolute control over her classroom, but that control is a magic trick: you can only see the impressive results, but never the effort and skill that went into achieving them. And perhaps, most importantly, she has a spirit that is gentle and mischievous in equal measure, a spirit perfect for spending each day with young children.
How do I know for sure that Mrs. Brooks is a great teacher? It is not because I am an expert. All of the parents in our community know these things about Mrs. Brooks. And it is not because our pedagogies are perfectly aligned. It is because my daughter is happy and learning. It is because I can see easily the kind of calm, rich classroom that Mrs. Brooks has created. It is because of her stellar reputation. It is because her talent is as plain as the hat on the cat on her pajamas.
If Mrs. Brooks were being rated on any fair and accurate scale of teaching quality, she would have to receive the highest of scores. I emphasize the words fair and accurate here because by all accounts, Sheri Lederman, a teacher in Great Neck, New York, also deserved to receive top ratings on her annual evaluation. A veteran educator with an impeccable record, she nonetheless received a rating of “ineffective” on her 2013-2014 teacher evaluation, due to a method known as value-added modeling (VAM). She is now suing the state over this rating, and hoping to force the state to rethink its use of VAM, which has been roundly criticized by statisticians and teachers. I admire her for fighting back, but I worry that many more teachers who are unfairly and inaccurately judged to be ineffective will instead just leave the profession, no matter how much they love teaching and no matter how much they love their students. I cannot imagine the psychic damage it would do to a teacher like Mrs. Brooks to have so many clear and objective indicators of her effectiveness, and yet still be labeled a failure by those tasked with judging her performance.
I have been involved in the world of education for almost two decades now: as an elementary school teacher for eight years, an education lawyer, and a parent. I have seen many fads come and go, all in service to the supposedly mysterious question of what makes a great teacher. But what I find endlessly baffling is that I am convinced that the very same people who have built their careers on discovering the one “right” answer to this question, have no qualms at all about labeling their own children’s teachers as good or bad, effective or ineffective, based on nothing more than their own experiences. And yet these experts persist, professionally, with their statistical models and rubrics and teacher evaluation tools, all of which aim to perfectly quantify something that is essentially unquantifiable.
We are deeply uncomfortable, as a society of modern thinkers, with the idea of any job or set of skills that cannot be fully captured with a neat form, a list, or a spreadsheet. We believe that anything primarily qualitative is a myth, or else fundamentally unknowable. But I’d like to suggest that we – theorists and parents alike – do know what makes a great teacher, that we cannot reduce a great teacher to a simple set of facts on a page, and that we nonetheless can still ensure that our teachers are “highly effective” in all of the most important ways. When it comes to great teaching, in the immortal (and slightly paraphrased) words of Justice Potter Stewart: we know it when we see it.
I do not mean to suggest that we should jettison every rating tool that has ever been created. Elements of those tools can certainly be useful in determining whether a teacher is effective across a range of measures. And I know that it is important to ascertain whether Mrs. Brooks is serving all of the students in her very diverse class equally well: the boys and the girls, the African-American and Latino and Asian and Caucasian students, the students from poor homes and the students from rich homes, the students for whom school learning is difficult and the students for whom it is easy.
But I am making a plea for us not to excise common sense from the process. I am asking us to start and end with the question: Is this teacher good enough for my kid? And most of all I am asking us to believe that all students deserve a Sheri Lederman or a Mrs. Brooks in their lives, and to give up on the silly myth that we cannot be sure we know a great teacher when we see one. It’s easy: She’s the one dancing in circles around a group of delighted children, wearing her Cat in the Hat pajamas.
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