Friday, January 13, 2012

Why Teaching Matters: What's the Square Root of Inspiration? Part 4

What teacher taught
Matt Mouser about art?
I've been asking former students, via Facebook, to tell me about teachers who made a real difference in their lives. 

I'm happy to say, response has been great.

So let me give you a little background on why this subject interests me. 

Currently the BIG idea in American education is to "fix" what's wrong with schools by creating all kinds of standardized tests and then tie teachers' pay to results.

Unfortunately, most proponents of this approach have taught only briefly, or have never taught at all.  And in their ignorance they are taking us down a dangerous path.  Of course, schools in this country could be better (but so could doctors' offices, day care centers and roofing companies, to name a few). 

My fear, howerver, is elemental.  I believe current leaders in education are leading us right over the cliff.

Here, for example, are a few facets of education that cannot be measured.  Does that mean they aren't important?  Are we really going to focus on test scores and imagine that that is all there ever is to learning?  I was a history teacher--but I'm fairly certain former students would tell you they did more writing in my class than almost any other.  But the ability to write with style is never going to be measured on a standardized social studies test.  Techinically, in this new Age of the Testing Fix, that means any time I spent trying to help students perfect their writing style was wasted.

It's a god awful way to "improve" education.

In my class we did a number of debates and all kinds of what I called "skits," on various topics.  I still remember a young man named Derek Vormwald, in a skit about George Washington and his army during the American Revolution.  Derek managed to use the two doors to my classroom to play two characters, exiting and entering as required, in a brilliant display of creative thinking.  Part of the time he was "Martha Washington," complete with falsetto voice and ratty-looking red wig.  Then he would exit and return in the role of a new recruit to the Continental Army.  Skits like these were meant to last for entire periods; and students did almost all the talking and all the thinking.  They had to learn material in great depth, had to learn to speak in front of an audience, and hundreds of students told me how much fun they had, participating and watching.  But debate skills, the ability to speak to an audience, fostering a love for learning, none of that can be "measured."

It's like trying to "measure" art.

Indeed, we had outstanding art teachers at Loveland Middle School (Barb Rockwood, Bethany Federman and Diane Sullivan, among others).  I often looked at student work, posted on bulletin boards in our halls, and marveled at what they had kids doing. 

We had a brilliant band director, too, Bruce Maegly.  He sent dozens of musicians on to the professional ranks.  How do you "measure" that?

Then there was my good friend, Jeff Sharpless, also a history teacher, who came up with the idea for a comic play based on Homer's Iliad (Achilles, Hector, Paris, Helen of Troy--and then he threw in Jessica Simpson).  There wasn't going to be a question on any standardized test about this.  But every year he got fifty kids involved as artists, actors and singers.  Jeff had played in a rock band during his youth.  So he created the songs for the play, including "We all Live in a City Known as Troy," performed to the tune of "Yellow Submarine."

Students loved performing and Jeff stayed late after school, twenty-five or thirty days each year, to make it work.  That can't be "measured" either.

It worries me--all this talk about standardized testing.  So, I've been asking former students to tell me about teachers who made a difference.  (I don't believe, twenty-five years from now--or a hundred--that other young men and women will be looking back fondly and saying, "Yes, I loved Mr. Johnson, because he focused on standardized test prep.")

Here, then, are memories students shared this week (and more to come).  William Ladd is up first for today:
I feel that I must weigh in on this anyway, because my comments will reflect on the not so [often] mentioned world of L.D. teachers, “teachees“, and teaching. I am very qualified to remark on this subject as I was an L.D. student with behavioral problems. I have had much time, expense, and effort put into my education. There are some who might believe this effort was a waste. It is to those people that I must protest. Although I did in fact “drop out” I have since paid “penance.” I served the Army, earned the G.I. Bill as a result. After Serving in the Army I studied at Southern State Community Collage and earned a Associates Degree in Electronics W/ Robotics Emphasis. I graduated with a 3.94 GPA thus earning Honors. This most likely would not have been possible for me with out my participating in L.D. programs. One teacher who stands out for me was Ms. Dee Ross (she has since been married). Although over time I have lost touch with her I still consider her my mentor (along with others). She taught me L.D. English, spelling (an area I must admit that I am still weak), and Mathematics. Aside from this she taught me respect (Not on a standardized test) and generally speaking she taught me how to carry myself through life (also not on a standardized test).
Ms. Ross did in fact marry, and as Mrs. Zaenglein, continued to do excellent work as a third grade teacher in Loveland for many years.

Tina Lee Coffinbarger "liked" William's post, another vote, in the Facebook world, for Ms. Ross.  Then Steve Glass added another comment.  Steve remembers getting swatted, unfortunately, but agrees with William whole-heartedly:  "Mr. Battle,Mr. Viall, and Coach Rich made a big impact on me when I would get in trouble and got lifted off the ground about six inches. I would say that was a big impact... Miss Ross was a very great teacher and caring."

Great and caring?  Can't be measured on a standardized test.

In fact, most of what matters in schools can't be tested.  Mr. Battle has aleady been mentioned in an earlier post, after he stepped in to help a young lady with a serious eating disorder.  And Coach Rich could get the best out of athletes in every sport he ever set his hand and heart to, from seventh and eighth grade football to wrestling and even, one year, girls' volleyball.  You wonder.  Does it matter if you teach kids to dig deep inside and never quit on a court or a field or in life?

I believe it does.

Annie Taylor, a star student in my class, and a 2007 Loveland High School graduate, reached back to elementary school for inspiration: 

Mrs. Kroncke from 6th grade... I will never forget her..... She made learning fun and she had the kindest heart... Even when the worst kids acted out and were so uncalled for and rude, she reached out to them. Also Mr. Zinnecker in high school... He made class a blast and had hilarious sarcasm. I loved them and will never forget them, along with u Mr. Viall !!

Lisa Brown dug even deeper:

There is an elementary teachers that I have the upmost respect for...Mrs. Walker, she helped me get through first grade. Everyone in my class didn't expect me to return to school after a bus accident I was in. I remember that day as if it was yesterday. School was dismissed early due to weather conditions. We had a substitute bus driver that day. I had slipped on the snow and ice and went under the bus. The bus driver thought I had already crossed in front of the bus, but when he went to pull away from my house, the back wheels ran my legs over, between my knees and ankles. I was very lucky that the snow had cushioned my legs. I couldn't walk for about a month unassisted by crutches. Mrs. Walker had came to my house to bring me my assignments and to tutor me on her own time. She didn't have to but she did, she went beyond her duties to ensure that I could stay caught up with the rest of the class. She was an amazing teacher.
Vicki Leroy and Ambie Hice "liked" Lisa's post; then Vicki went back farther still to mention an educator who had a lasting influence: "Kindergarten--Mrs. Poe--pointed out to my mom that I had 'leadership' qualities. My mom says she thinks it was a nice way of saying I was bossy (like I didn't get that quality honestly, Mom)."

Ms. Leroy had more good to say about teachers; but I'll save her comments and others for another day, note that I too discoverd in seventh grade that she had leadership qualities, and end with what Matt Mouser's has to say.

He remembers, for example, the moment he learned he'd never be a carpenter:
One time Mr. ----- yelled something to me I will never forget and it changed me forever. From one side of the room to the other he yelled to me "WHAT THE HELLS THE MATTER WITH YOU!! ARE YOU SOME KINDA GOD DAMNED IDIOT!!" I'll never forget that....we were close like that. I haven't built a shelf since.
Then he added:  "In all seriousness Mr. Viall...Mrs. Reynolds always told me she believed in me. I am the artist I am today because of her."

Ruth Herzog "liked" Matt's comment and added her own thoughts, but, again, for we'll leave it at that for today.  Teachers can have a negative impact--but most of the educators I ever met were having a positive impact, often in subtle ways.

You can't measure that.


  1. I absolutely love reading all the comments from former students. They are so interesting, some touching, some funny. Thanks for this.

  2. What an amazing tribute to educators.
    I'm a firm believer in making a difference in the lives around us. Children at any age learn who they are & who they will be based on the education they receive most of which can't be found in a book or measured on a state mandated test.
    I enjoyed this blog & hope to read more from you in the future.
    I too am a former loveland graduate (class of 92)
    & carry a heart full of gratitude for many of the educators to impacted my life

  3. "It's like trying to "measure" art." This is a great line.
    I think this idea extends to so much of what is taught in schools. Ed. Psychologist Robert Sternberg has for years preached what he calls "Successful Intelligence." Yeah, analytic/academic skills matter--but so do creative and practical skills not measured on analytical tests (says Sternberg)