The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What makes a great teacher

(By Charles Rex Arbogast/ AP)

What is at the heart of great teaching? Ellie Herman set out to find out and the following post explains what she learned. Herman took an unorthodox path to the world of education. For two decades she was a writer/producer for television shows including “The Riches,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Chicago Hope” and “Newhart.” She wrote fiction that appeared in literary journals, among them The Massachusetts Review, The Missouri Review and the O.Henry Awards Collection. Then, in 2007, she decided “on an impulse” to become an English teacher. She got a job at a South Los Angeles charter school that was 97 percent Latino and where 96 percent of the students lived below the poverty line. She taught drama, creative writing, English 11 and 9th grade Composition until 2013, when she decided to stop teaching and spend a year visiting classrooms and learning from other teachers. She chronicled the lessons she learned on her blog, Gatsby in L.A., where a version of the following post appeared. Herman, who gave me permission to publish this piece, was awarded first and third place prizes in the 2014 SoCal Journalist Awards given by the Los Angeles Press Club for pieces on her blog. Now she teaches reading and writing at an after-school enrichment program for students from low-income families, visits the classrooms of great teachers, and works with writers, artists and other creative people.

By Ellie Herman

I have a friend named Lauren Freeman Felder,  an English teacher who a former student of mine named Gerardo said had turned his life around because she refused to give up on him.

In 2013, 16 of the 23 students in her AP English Literature class passed the AP exam. Four of them scored “4’s.” [The highest grade available is a 5.] This would be something in any class, but in the case of Lauren’s, we are talking about students from one of the highest-poverty communities in Los Angeles, who until high school had attended some of the most infamously terrible schools in Los Angeles, many of whom came into 9th grade reading well below grade level.

The AP English Lit exam, for those of you who haven’t taken it, relies heavily on a student’s knowledge of the entire body of English and American Literature. Of the many things I have learned visiting classrooms in Los Angeles, one of them is that students who live in very high-poverty communities like South L.A. or Watts live in a kind of isolation that segregates them from exposure to other socioeconomic groups, making tests like the AP Lit exam, which tests upper-middle-class cultural knowledge as much as writing skills, particularly difficult. I’ve actually never heard of such a large number of kids passing the AP Lit exam at a school in a high-poverty community.

I know, because Lauren is incredibly modest, that she is going to want to kill me for writing about her, but she’s going to have to deal with it, because what she did is amazing—and it helps me understand the most important lesson I have learned, which is that great teaching is much, much more than a set of techniques. I know that Lauren has incredible skills, honed after years of classroom experience. But when Gerardo talked about her years later, those skills are not what he talked about. What he talked about was how much she cared about him and believed in him.

In my year of talking to great teachers, no matter where they taught, whether at the wealthiest private school or in the most severely impoverished community, one word came up consistently. That word was “love.”

“I love my students,” they would say, and sometimes their eyes would even fill with tears. One teacher told me he was quitting at the end of the year because his school was so dysfunctional but begged me not to tell anyone because he loved his students so much he couldn’t bear for them to find out yet. Another teacher wouldn’t stop showing me photos of her former students, long since grown with children of their own, as proud of their accomplishments as any parent.

Look, I’m not saying skills don’t matter, that teachers should just waltz into the classroom and just hang out with a full heart all day. Trust me, for my first two years, I was that teacher, and it wasn’t pretty. Great teachers are masters of the techniques they need to reach the students in their classrooms, though those techniques are extremely different depending on the students’ skills, trust levels and emotional needs. Watching Catherine Ricohermoso-Stine, truly a master at the top of her game, taught me more about technique than I ever learned in my teacher credential program or in five years of professional development meetings.

But you know what Catherine said when I asked her what her secret was? Love. “I never stop believing in them,” she said. She pointed out that she never missed an opportunity to tell them that she loves them, and that whenever she can, she grabs a moment to praise a student even for something small. I realized as she said this that throughout her class she hands out “spirit love” tickets to acknowledge anything from great work to a perceptive in-class comment, to be redeemed for parties and adventures. She structures her classes so that they include a maximum of in-person, one-on-one conferences with each student every time they write a paper, during which she’ll focus on the positive and remind them that she believes in their ability to make the paper better.

In terms of pure technique, the most valuable thing I learned all year was Catherine Ricohermoso-Stine’s method of having four individual conferences with each student for one research paper.  Yes, you read that right, four conferences for a single paper. Multiply that by 150 or so students. That’s a ton of class time she sacrificed for those conferences. But it worked. And more than anything, it was an opportunity for her to let them know, one on one, that she was there for them—literally.

So yes, that was teaching technique at its finest. It’s a skill that she learned from her mentor, and that I have now learned from her. But being able to sit down and look into a student’s eyes and read his paper for the third time when he’s the 49th student you’ve seen this morning and you have 10 more to see before lunch, to be able to take a breath and focus and really be present and let that student know that you care personally about him, that you remember that his mother just got out of the hospital and he’s really excited because they just got a puppy…that’s not technique. That’s love, and though it’s uncomfortable to talk about in a public service job, at its core, it’s undeniably spiritual.

I started this journey with a question: what makes a great teacher? I’ve learned that great teachers—contrary to current popular belief—are very different in different settings. Great teachers respond to the needs of the communities they serve, and every community has a unique set of needs. Teaching is both a science and an art, and the science varies quite a bit from school to school depending on the skill levels of the student body. The art varies with every human being. The one thing that does not change is that great teachers love their students and their work.

And I’m scared. If teaching is an art and a science, I’m scared that in our national conversation about education, we are so intent on demanding accountability for mastering the “science” part that we’re creating conditions that seem designed to crush teachers’ souls. When our system treats teachers with disdain, creating accountability measures whose underlying premise is that teachers are so incompetent and lazy that they need to be monitored rigidly, strictly and incessantly, at what point does that myth become corrosive to a teacher’s humanity?

How do we nurture and encourage the qualities teachers need in order to use all these techniques in the first place, the faith, the compassion, the patience, the passion for a subject? Can we start by valuing those qualities—by which I do not mean putting a dollar value on them? Can we acknowledge and respect the individual lives and experiences that teachers are bringing to the classroom every day, without which none of what they’re teaching would be of any use to anyone? Can we balance our need for accountability with our equal need for inspiration?

What did I learn visiting classrooms in 2014? I learned a ton of great techniques. I learned that schools are ecosystems and that students’ learning is deeply affected by their trust levels and that principals are the key and that teachers in low-income communities should be paid more—a lot more. But above all, I learned that in the end, love is the answer. And technique, yes. But underneath it all, love.

To all the teachers who invited me into their classrooms this year, and to my teacher friends who are heading back to school soon, thank you for all you do, in spite of everything, to change the world one child at a time.