What The Best Teachers Do

Since retiring from the PBS NewsHour last year, I’ve been working on a book about my 41 years as a reporter.   To jog my memory, I’ve reread my blog and what others have written in response.  I’ve been struck by the thoughtfulness of many respondents, quite a few of whom are teachers.  

Forty-one years of reporting taught me how special teachers are, and this current project reinforces that view.  So many teachers routinely go the extra mile to connect with their students, and they do it without any expectation of recognition from their bosses. I believe it’s in the DNA of most of the men and women who make teaching their career.  Shouldn’t we be making it easier for them to do what they do best, which is help grow adults, instead of hounding them about test scores?

I use those three words,help grow adults, advisedly.

          “Help” conveys that teaching and learning are team sports.  

          “Grow” connotes a process of many steps (most forward, some not), which is why one test score–a snapshot–should never be used to make critical decisions.  It’s a movie, not a photo.

          “Adult” is the end-game of schooling, not ‘getting into college’ or ‘doing well on the SAT/ACT.’  What is it that we want children to be and be able to do when they are out on their own?  Never forget that ‘We are what we repeatedly do.’

That’s why I want to share something written by a teacher I’ve never met.  What Joe Beckman wrote in 2001 captures how teachers find ways to connect.  They understand that kids don’t care how much a teacher knows, not until they know how much that teacher cares:   

“I had a remarkable experience as a teacher last night, purely because of opportunity, setting and timing. One of the too-many disparate things I do is coach a bunch of kids in online credit recovery courses. A very bright but previously shy African American kid was struggling with a fairly basic history unit, not passing tests he obviously could have passed. So we talked. He had always hated history and was trying to work through what I’d call some “oppositional defiance disorder” with Abigail Adams. As he got up to take a break, he whispered that his real problem was that his mother made him homeless a few days before, and he’d been having problems with her for the past year.

We went into the hallway, talked a little, and he mellowed out a bit; he went to get a snack. On returning, I suggested we look at a movie rather than fight Abigail again. Just then he got a call from a girlfriend and rescheduled their date. While he was on the phone, I called up Bessie Smith’s short 1929 video, “St. Louis Blues.” She captured him. He kept muttering how the world has changed. Racism may continue, but not the way it was in 1929 in a Speak-Easy. When Bessie’s boyfriend stole her money from her stocking, the young man was shocked. I suggested he not show the movie to his girlfriend, and he giggled. We did a lot of history in a very, very short time.

When the movie was over, we talked about working through a learning contract that could build a view of US History from movies like that. He left in tears, and today I found him a place to live for the next six to twelve months.

Now, I’m not sure if that was art, media, literacy, history, music, compassion, social work, or merely a sense of peace and awareness that he knows he is not like Bessie’s boyfriend. Breaking those into such components really isn’t necessary – it’s more than our learning contract will include. Yet it most surely is teaching a kid some history that he may well remember a very long time.

Isn’t that the point?”

Amen, Joe Beckman, and thanks for the valuable reminder of what the best teachers do.

6 thoughts on “What The Best Teachers Do

  1. Oh how I loved this. Recently, at a 50th hs reunion, I got to tell in person two of the four teachers what they’d done for me and meant to me. In the last two days at a conference in the meetings and hospitality industry, again, I got to talk about how I learned good examples of room sets and seating from high school teachers, examples I apply today to meetings and teach to others. So here, now, I praise them again: the late Lenore Clippinger who allowed me to sit on the floor in here English Lit class because I hated the tablet chairs; Stan Blum who, in a civics class, put the chairs in a circle for better interaction; Jim Payne, my senior year speech teacher, who gave me the skills and confidence to become a trainer; and Bing Davis, the art teacher and formidable artist, who let me, a non-art student, sit in his classroom during some study halls because the atmosphere was more conducive to helping me learn. I can’t imagine where I’d be without them and their passion and flexibility.


  2. The recognition, here, that teachers most effectively reach students through their own convictions gives articulation to what I, as a veteran teacher working with many curriculum-disconnected (non-White) students learned. The kids learned the most from me when I was passionate enough about what I was teaching to stretch myself, and to think even more deeply about the subject at hand. When I, personally, had an “epiphany?” They experienced that moment of “learning” with me. That was always such a wonderful experience — and that’s when I knew that I was truly teaching.


  3. Thirty years ago I began my teaching career in a small rural school in Southeast Idaho. Activities included loading all the kids on a flatbed simi-tractor trailer sitting on bales of straw and going caroling in the winter. Clydesdale horses came with wagons to take all the kids up into the hills for a spring picnic. Recesses were spent with faculty playing basketball against the fifth grade boys. Then came No Child Left Behind, and with it some of the simpler times were left behind as well. Still, we found ways to steal time away from mandated testing to have an occassional bottle rocket launching. I am still in the same school district, though not at the same school. Many of my former students have grown to adulthood and stayed to raise families in the area, which means I get to be principal for their children. These former-students-now-parents often share their memories with me, memories of bottle rockets ending up in a neighbor’s field, basketball games against the teachers, horse rides and picnics in the hills, and singing carols from the back of a flatbed truck. As I sat writing this, the six-year-old daughter or one of my former students came to the office to call home. She said she was sick, but we knew her grandfather’s funeral was only two days ago. Her little heart was breaking. Soft words and a loving hug from a caring, compassionate secretary provided a moment to be long treasured. Marley’s Ghost can be heard crying with anguish in response to those who would make public schools into a business: “Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.” Yes, there are still those special educators who know just when to saddle up and take the kids for a picnic.

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