Positive and Negative Numbers
February 21, 2011

I have very strong opinions about the profession of teaching. And very strong opinions about the state of education in the U.S. today.

If I had a child, would I send that kid to public school? A private school? Charter? Magnet, Montessori? Would I homeschool?

I don't know. It depends on where I live, what schools are available, what I can afford to do.

A private school is not necessarily better than a public school. A teacher with a master's in not necessarily a better teacher than a 20something fresh out of college. And sometimes a teacher without a degree in education can trump both those.

What makes a good teacher is something that cannot be bought or sold. It cannot be measured by standardized tests. It is difficult to quantify and put on a report.

A good teacher is one who has depth of knowledge in their field. A curiosity to learn more. An inherent belief that other theories can also be valid - if they are presented with valid evidence. A good teacher is one who is open to honest discussion. Who can guide students into new ways of thinking. Who can encourage new thoughts. Who can elicit response either verbal or written. A good teacher is one who understands how to motivate. Who genuinely wants to understand students in order to meet them where they are and bring them into a larger world.

A good teacher is not necessarily one whose students score 1600 on the SAT. A good teacher is not necessarily the teacher whose students have the best standardized test scores.

Near the end of sixth grade, our teachers went into a frenzy, preparing us for the CAT - California Achievement Test. We lived, breathed, ate that test for weeks. The emphasis was not on the material, it was on how to take the test. Memorize some material just to get through it.

This is not education. It's training. The same as you train your dog to shake on command.

The teachers were not interested in our learning during those weeks. They were fevered, concerned and panicked - we HAD to do well.

When the test was over, things went back to normal. Then the junior high came in to give us placement tests.

Our math teacher attempted to prepare us for positive and negative numbers - a concept that was not on the CAT, but would be on our math placement for junior high, just days before the junior high came over. We were presented with a set of unexplained rules and told to follow them.

For whatever reason, I have never been able to memorize a set of rule and just do them just because. Personally, I have to understand the concept or I don't get it. If I don't understand the concept, I will remain unable to memorize the ruleset. This caused me a lot of problems later on in the biological sciences where things just are not very intuitive for me ... but in sixth grade, it reared its head with positive and negative numbers. My math teacher was understandably exhausted and drained from the stress of the previous weeks gearing up for the CATs. It was getting late in the year and I'm sure we were all becoming wild hooligans at the thought of summer - and leaving elementary school for junior high.

But she didn't take the time to explain the concepts. She made a mistake - which, by the way, I do not think made her a bad teacher.

Because I didn't understand the concepts behind positive and negative numbers, I couldn't memorize the rules. Because I both couldn't memorize the rules and didn't get the concept, I did poorly on that section of the test. Within days of that test, the teacher finally recovered and patiently explained the concept to me. It clicked almost instantly and I never had issues again. But I was also put into "regular" math instead of "honors" math for junior high.

What was truly more important? Demonstrating pure animal training on a standardized test? Or understanding the concepts?

And how do you measure what makes a good teacher?

There is no way to display this on a test. You can't just poll student opinion - students tend to let their opinion of the subject get in the way, or that one time the teacher made a single mistake, or the fact that they were strict for a good reason, etc, etc. An administrator observing a class is an aberration in the class routine and doesn't necessarily represent the teacher's abilities, either.

I don't know what THE answer is for any country trying to ensure a good, solid education system.

And that's why I don't know if I could send my child to any particular school. It might be a wonderful school, but maybe one teacher and my child aren't a good mix. There are so many, many variables.

To the teachers of Wisconsin - stay strong. Stay focused. You are right to protest when you are being attacked.

But do your best to remember why you teach when you go back. To protect your own spark as you begin kindling sparks in your students as well.

And don't let the numbers bring you down. What you do is greater than the sum of those tests ....

Posted by Red Monkey at February 21, 2011 6:01 AM | Why Johnny Won't Learn and Mrs. Curnutt Is Tired of the System | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |


inthefastlane said:

My kids have had good teachers and a few GREAT teachers and one or two not so good teachers. And I have to say that the quality of the teacher makes the biggest difference, rather than the school or the instructional method. It is how that teacher makes a connection to her students. And this can never be measured by grades or test scores. But, it is obvious to those who know.

And i think it makes an even bigger difference in the earlier grades where that teacher is with the kids for the majority of the school day.

My son had one of the best teachers I have ever met last year. She took the time to create relationships with her students and meet them on their level and then challenge them to move forward. My son, who is very bright, but does not naturally want to do "school" did his very best for this teacher every day because he knew that she cared for her students. This year, he has "good" teachers. And he does ok, but you can see the difference a great teacher makes.

February 21, 2011 12:07 PM


Tara R. said:

I think teachers should adhere to a standard much like a physician - 'Above all, I will do no harm."

Depending on which of my children we are discussing, you'll hear two very different opinions on today's public school teachers.

On the whole, I admire good, dedicated teachers. Ones who are in education because they love to teach, and love the students in their classrooms. I think as a profession, they are underpaid and under-appreciated. I also believe it should not be so difficult to fire teachers who are incompetent or just plain horrible.

February 21, 2011 3:26 PM
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