A Belated Valentine for Teachers

In 40 years of reporting about education for PBS and NPR, I figure that I have watched somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 teachers at work. I have seen{{1}} an awful lot of really good teaching.

Every once in a while someone asks me, “Who’s the very best teacher you’ve ever met?”  In fact, a retired AT&T executive-turned-teacher asked me that just a few nights ago over dinner, which prompts this Valentine to great teachers everywhere.

I shouldn’t even try to create a list because I know I will leave out dozens {{2}}.  But, throwing caution to the winds, here goes.  On my list, and in no particular order are:

The late Ted Sizer. He taught adults and children, and his influence is still being felt  and ;

Two wonderful teachers, Nancy Welsh and Gary Wieland, at a Department of Defense elementary school on Fort Bragg, North Carolina;

Janis Huira, a teacher in Los Angeles who created SOS, “Society of Students”;

Doug Wood, an inspiring teacher in South Carolina who was light years ahead of everyone when it came to embracing technology; alas, he is no longer in the classroom;

Maria Eby, a first grade teacher in Raleigh, NC. You can watch her at work;

A good friend from graduate school, Larry Aaronson, who devoted his life to teaching young people, most of them working class, how to survive and excel, at a public alternative school in Cambridge.  Among his students were Matt Damon and Ben Affleck;

Kady Amundson, a Teach for America corps member from New Orleans now in her fifth year on the job. You can watch her at work in “Rebirth,” on Netflix;

Bob Gibson, a teacher at Community College of Denver;

John Holt, the writer and teacher (and rebel);

Esther Wojcicki, a high school journalism teacher in Palo Alto whose students work their tails off for her because she trusts them to aspire to the highest standards of journalism; {{3}}

Anthony Cody, a teacher in Oakland who now works with classroom teachers and blogs frequently about the excesses of the ‘Education Deform’ movement.

Johnny Brinson, a veteran teacher in Washington, DC.  All first graders learned to read with comprehension;

The fiery Diana Porter of Woodward High School in Cincinnati;

Fred D’Ignazio, who spent years teaching teachers who were afraid of technology how to embrace it (and to let go of their need to control everything);

A wonderful preschool teacher in France, a long drink of water who brought learning to life for the 3- and 4-year-olds in his program in a poor section of Paris;  and;

A teacher and a librarian in South Orange, NJ, whose names I am withholding because you will meet them on our air in the near future.

I could go on.

Oddly enough, however, my all-time favorite teacher is a man whose surname I no longer know, and whose school location I am not even sure of. In my view, George embodies the best in the business, not necessarily because of how he taught, but more because of what he stood for and how he stood his ground when the going got tough.  Here’s the story, as I remember it.

I met George at a public high school in Maine or New Hampshire in the late 70’s, when I was still at NPR. At the principal’s recommendation, I sat in on George’s ethics class, which I remember being lively and interesting.  Afterwards we had a cup of coffee at my request, because I wanted to hear his story. The Ethics class, he told me, was an elective, one of a bunch of courses that seniors could choose from for their final semester of high school. He had taught it for the first time one year ago.

George did not know that the principal had already told me the basics of the story. So I just said to George, ‘Tell me about the class.’   I set the bar high because it’s an ethics class, he said. I tell the students that I accept only A or B work. Anything else, they get a grade of ‘Incomplete.’  I make it crystal clear to them that they cannot flunk the class– or even pass with a D or a C.

He told me that he did this because he wanted them to approach their lives and careers that way.

How do the kids react, I asked?  They blow it off, of course, he told me, but I make them sign a letter of agreement up front. If they won’t sign, they can’t take the course.  And, he added, he cleared this approach with the principal, who agreed to support him.

Midway through the semester not even half of the kids were doing A or B work, and so he reminded them of the contract they’d signed.  He told me he could see their eyes roll.

And with a few weeks left, many were still well under the A/B bar.  And that’s when it got really interesting, he said. The guidance counselor spotted all those ‘Incomplete’ grades on the interim reports and called those students to his office. He told them their diplomas were in jeopardy because no one with an Incomplete on his/her report card was allowed to graduate.

Panic ensued, he told me.  The students came clamoring to his classroom. “Please just flunk me,” some kids begged.  They told him that they had enough credits to graduate, so an F wouldn’t hurt.  Remember the contract, he responded.  No grade of F, D or C allowed.  Go back and do the work, he advised.

Now, remember that George had obtained the principal’s approval in advance, probably because he anticipated some problems.  But he couldn’t have imagined what happened next. One student with an Incomplete went home and complained to his father, who just happened to be the Chair of the School Board. That gentleman made an appointment to see George.

He came in, George recalled, a mix of bluster and unctuousness.  I’m so proud of my son, George remembers him saying. My boy has been accepted at Colgate, he was voted “Most Likely to Succeed,” he’s interning this summer at the local bank, and he’s spending all his time working on his speech for graduation–he was chosen to be Class Speaker. He’s on track to graduate, so why don’t you just give him a D?  Or even an F, if that would make you feel better.

This is an ethics class, George says he told the father.  And are you certain that’s the ethical lesson you want me to teach your son: that contracts don’t matter, that his word doesn’t matter, and that all that really matters is ‘who you know’?

Chastened, the father went home.  The son did the work.

And, for me, George and his principal became models for the profession.  High standards and expectations; clear rules; choices for students; academic performance as the constant with time the variable; intellectual courage and foresight on George’s part; and solid leadership from the principal.  What’s not to admire?

If any of this this triggers memories of your favorite teachers, please consider honoring them by sharing your stories.    Thanks.

[[1]]1. I have also been the beneficiary of great teaching, notably my high school English teachers, William Sullivan and Rowland MacKinley, at the Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut, Donald Gray at Indiana University, and David K. Cohen at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.[[1]]

[[2]]2. Ever since I began this list, I have been waking up in the middle of the night with new names to add to my list. I am publishing this now so I can get a good night’s sleep![[2]]

[[3]]3. Full Disclosure: Esther is now the Board Chair of Learning Matters, but she was on my list of ‘The Best’ long before we asked her to serve.[[3]]

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