How do you define greatness in a teacher? Nicholas Ferroni insists it’s about caring, empowerment and commitment – not standardized tests.
This week of school, like every other week, was pretty normal: I gave out about fifty dollars to various students who didn’t have lunch money; I resolved two teenage relationship issues; I comforted three girls who, for some reason, think they are so ugly that no boys will ever like them; I got three students, who have whispered three words each all year, to speak in front of the class; I paid for four students to join the gym and also offered to train them in order for them to deal with their aggression constructively; I went out of my way to make sure that five of my students, who I know are having problems at home, know that they are intelligent, strong and have so much to offer this world. So, in the education world where you deal with hundreds of uniquely individual teenagers trying to accept who they are, it’s just a normal week. I am not trying to brag because my commitment to my students is not the exception but the norm, especially at the high school where I teach where so many of my colleagues, day in and day out, give their hearts, souls and money to their students without a thought. I also do not want your sympathy because I, like most teachers, went into education for this very reason: to educate, empower and nurture youth.
To me, and most people, there is not a nobler or more important calling in the world than teaching. But, for some reason, teachers constantly come under attack by many (mostly politicians). I can say with certainty that one teacher performs more of a public service than one thousand politicians. Politicians, however, are blaming teachers for failing children and claiming that we do not want to be held accountable in any way for diminishing test scores. So, to hold teachers accountable, and ultimately decide who is a good teacher, education boards and experts created these evaluation systems intended to weed out those teachers who are ineffective. They say it’s simple: teachers will be evaluated based on the success or failure of their students in the classroom. Now,it does sound simple on the surface, given that all students are exactly the same, with similar home lives and identical learning abilities. But, anyone who has ever been in school knows that, not only is that impossible, it is completely impractical. Besides, dare we come to a point in educating our youth during the most important and lasting years of their life where we no longer view them as human beings who need to be nurtured, but scores and statistics? The thought is too horrible to even conceive.
Mrs. Martino, my kindergarten teacher, was one of the most important and influential people in my life besides my parents. She was the one who noticed I was an awkward and insecure little boy, and made sure to remind me daily of how talented and beautiful I was. My success in life is directly related to the confidence this incredible woman instilled upon me during my most important years. I can only imagine the person I would be today if, instead of building my confidence and self-esteem, Mrs. Martino made sure I only learned all of my multiplication tables because my score on a state test would ultimately determine her salary at the end of the year, or if she completely disregarded the fact I needed someone besides my mother to believe in me and my abilities because her focus had to be on test scores and not nurturing human beings. I know for a fact that, if that was the case, not only would I not be a teacher, but I would not be the confident and compassionate person I am who is contributing to this world by attempting to build the confidence and self-esteem of my students, just as Mrs. Martino did for me.
How do we evaluate what I, and what most teachers, consider far more important than test scores and even more important than the subjects we teach: caring, nurturing and empowering our students in order to provide them with the confidence and tools to contribute to society and ultimately change the world? Unlike Mrs. Martino, and other elementary school teachers, who will not find out the true impact they had on a child until later on in that child’s life, I have the pleasure of continuing to have relationships with my students even after they graduate. I have the honor of seeing them graduate from college, pursue their dreams, and move on to do so many amazing things. I don’t know a single teacher who, after a student moves on and is no longer in his or her class, disregards or shuns a student because he or she no longer factors into that teacher’s evaluation. Again, I teach with such incredible people, who go above and beyond for all their students, past and present, and I know that this is the case at all schools in America.
Without going into too much off topic, has anyone advocating for teacher evaluation and merit pay ever even consider what impact it will have on the performance of students in the classroom? They are incredibly naïve if they think that the fact that all accountability now lies on a teacher’s performance, and not the student, will not lead students performance to decline. Why would students work harder to excel in the classroom, when they are completely free of any responsibility for their grade? This is ultimately suggesting that each student has no role in their own success or failure in the classroom. Any one of us who has attended school knows that without a doubt that, not only are we responsible for our own academic performance, but that we are far more responsible than our teachers, our parents and even our friends were for our grades.
This brings me back to my opening paragraph; the most important role a teacher plays in the lives of his or her students is not as an examiner, but as a nurturer. Attempting to evaluate a teacher based on standardized tests is like evaluating a doctor solely on whether a patient lives, dies, or is cured. Just as every doctor gives his or her all attempting to save and cure patients, every teacher gives his or her entire self to students (who we treat more like our own children than our students). I can’t imagine a world where teachers are so fearful of losing their jobs because their students, who may be going through so many various and horrible circumstances, that they disregard the emotional role of an educator and focus solely on the academics. I will never tell a student, “Stop crying! I don’t care if you are depressed, or you haven’t eaten breakfast, or your parents beat you. I need you to do your work and study so you do well on your exam, so we meet our district goals and my pay is not garnished!”
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Originally appeared at The Huffington Post