Thursday, July 12, 2012

Why Don't We Hear More about Good Teachers?

Kyle's present: 
a Christmas coffee mug
SOME MONTHS BACK, I ASKED former students to tell me about teachers who had made a difference in their lives.

I've been side-tracked lately, focusing on other issues, including making fun of Mitt Romney's position on teachers' unions, but decided it was time to do another post about the ways teachers make a difference. I was drinking coffee this morning out of a mug given to me by a former student.

In Kyle's case, I had him for a class in Ancient World History. So the subject of religion often came up. Kyle was serious in his Christian values and what I liked (though I'm not especially religious) was his strong commitment to principled conduct. I tried to be sure he knew how much I respected his thinking and he gave me the mug as a present at Christmas.

The point is, I tried to make a difference, tried to help students learn to think for themselves. That's just one part of what good teachers do; and I saw countless good teachers during my career and still do. But to listen to critics you wouldn't even know they exist.

Good teachers don't make the news.

In the same way, I noticed a post on Facebook a few weekends ago. It was from Ms. Katie Rose, a Loveland Middle School teacher, congratulating the graduating class of 2012, kids she'd worked with four years before. I think she said that she was going to three graduation parties. In other words, that's three lives she touched.

And I was telling a friend recently about Mr. Scott Sievering, another Loveland Middle School teacher. I once watched him console a pregnant girl, in the eighth grade, with a couple of the most perfect sentences I ever heard anyone utter.

I wish I had written them down at the time so I could demonstrate how he did it. I only known now he told the young lady he always respected her because she was "real" and "genuine." And I know it made an impact, because the same young lady came to me in class the next day and told me how Mr. Sievering's words had touched her and how much better she felt afterwards, because he had shown her he cared.

In my case, I'm still lucky enough to hear from former students on a regular basis. Dave Eastman, a Loveland High School and Yale graduate, stopped by my house and gave me a copy of his book:  Paul the Martyr:  The Cult of the Apostle in the Latin West.  I think it shows us something important about teaching, and what good teachers do, to note that he made sure I received a copy. Jay Vinson, another former student, and I trade political opinions via Facebook. He's a conservative guy and I'm an old liberal codger; but I enjoy hearing what he has to say, just as I did when I was still teaching. I'm Facebook friends with Jennifer Chast, too, a former star student, now a Loveland High School teacher of math. I've heard from a number of sources that she does an excellent job and I can't say I'm surprised. Mandi Vargo also checks in on occasion. Another great young lady to have in class "back in the day." She has a high school position in Louisiana, working with Teach for America, and she's determined to make a difference.

No doubt she will.

This past May I visited my old place of employment, Loveland Middle School. Mr. Dave Fletcher was organizing a visit by an array of veterans, in celebration of Memorial Day. I talked about my funnier experiences in boot camp in 1969, and my "heroic service" as a clerk in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. But Dave had some real heroes:  men who fought in World War II, an F-16 pilot who dodged missiles over Baghdad in 1991, Ace Gilbert, a great speaker who saw heavy combat in Vietnam, and more. I'd heard Joe Whitt, a Pearl Harbor survivor, talk during previous visits. But this time he told a story he hadn't when he visited before. Mr. Whitt took part in the Battle of Savo Island in 1942 and saw a U. S. battle cruiser take a direct hit from Japanese fire, breaking in half and sinking in seconds.

Joe told students he still has dreams sometimes about that moment. He sees the cruiser explode. He sees the bodies of U. S. sailors go flying into the air. Only, in his dream, he's one of them. He flies high in the sky, and when he starts coming down he's scared. At the last moment, as he's about to hit the water, he puts his feet close together and locks his arms at his side and prepares to hit the ocean perfectly.

And then he wakes up.

Seventy years later, Whitt still remembers what war is like, still recalls the horror, and Mr. Fletcher lines up Joe and thirteen other veterans to speak. And through that effort, Mr. Fletcher also touches lives.

I ATTENDED A CINCINNATI REDS game recently with two old friends. Steve Ball, is recently retired after a long career, teaching math at Loveland Middle School. It's a long story to explain how I know what I'm going to explain, but at the end of every school year, I let my students rate my class. I had them do so anonymously, because I wanted to know what they really thought and try to improve.

One young man told me succinctly:  "You suck 4 Real!"

At any rate, in order to form a kind of baseline comparison, I asked kids to name "any teacher" they thought had done an "excellent" job. Not just a "good" job. I asked them to single out "excellence." Every year--every year I gave that survey--more than half of all students, if they also had Mr. Ball, mentioned his efforts.

The third member of the trio was Jeff Sharpless, and he's still working today. He and I used to teach the same subject; and we often worked on joint projects with kids. Jeff once dreamed up a play, based on Homer's Illiad, and including Jessica Simpson (as Helen of Troy's rival), and we put it on every year for our classes. That meant Jeff had to stay after school twenty or twenty-five afternoons to work with actors and artists and singers. (Yep:  his play included a Greek chorus.) So he got fifty kids involved and did it for free every year. He also ran a guitar club after school, also free, and got young men and women interested in music.

I KNOW THERE ARE CRAPPY TEACHERS OUT THERE, TOO. I've never had an ounce of respect for educators who don't give the job their all. But we need to hear far more about those who do.

So I'll give one more example. Then I'll turn it over to a former student to finish this up. At the end of this month my wife, Anne, retires, ending a long career as a speech therapist with the Hamilton City Public Schools. Yet, she still came home all this last year excited about what she was doing to help real kids. With the assistance of several other dedicated special education instructors, she managed to get a nine-year-old girl to say the first words she'd ever spoken. Those same teachers, working with my wife, found a way to get a severely autistic boy to start using a book with pictures, representing basic words and phrases, so that he could stick them on a velcro strip in proper order and "say" "I"

They taught a young man to communicate.

Finally, I turn it over to Cathy Nye. When I had Ms. Nye for American history, back in her middle school days, she was the kind of classroom star who always stood out. She, too, went on to a career in the classroom. So, when I asked former students, sometime back, to comment on educators who made a difference in their lives Ms. Nye had plenty to say:
Going through [the] Loveland School system, I had countless teachers that were amazing - the list of ones I'm not particularly fond of is amazingly small...

My 2nd grade teacher, Miss Hipp (not Loveland schools) I remember truly loving. There are also some vague recollections of going to her class when I was in 1st grade for reading class because I was ahead of the rest of the class.

Mrs. Martin in 5th grade I think is who I have to credit with my love of math and history (though the latter I also blame on my dad). On a more embarrassing note, I still sucked my thumb in 5th grade and Mrs. Martin challenged me to stop - even offering me her own incentive (which I have long forgotten).

Cathy listed several others who made a lasting impact, including Mr. Bob Wagner, at Loveland High, a name that repeatedly comes up whenever good teaching is the subject. So, yeah, teachers like Wagner and Rose and Sievering and Sharpless and Ball, make a huge difference and do it in all kinds of ways. Ms. Nye provides a last example:
What I love about what Mr. Viall is doing here is pointing out the awesome and amazing impact that teachers have - an impact that is not measurable on any kind of test, standardized or not. I had a student for Psychology one year who told me that I was his favorite teacher he'd ever had, the one that made him feel most comfortable in the classroom. I was incredibly touched by that statement but also incredibly sad because this student was a senior in high school and it was sad that it'd taken that long for someone to impact his life. This student wasn't the best in the class, we never had a heart-to-heart chat but still, a teacher had an impact and made a difference in his life.



  1. This is a very good question. All you hear about is how teachers aren't conducted themselves properly. I know as a past student of Mr. Viall, that we all have shown how we can think for ourselves. There are a lot of good teachers that didn't get the recognition that they all deserve. I know from my days as a student in Loveland school district, that there are many outstanding teachers that put forth their best. First grade teacher Mrs. Walker, second grade Mrs Wallace, and third grade Mrs. Sparr and Mrs. Ball. There are so many more. Mr. Viall 7th grade History and Mrs. Puls 7th grade English just to name a couple more.

    1. Thanks, Lisa, I'll relay your comment to Ms. Puls and Mr. Ball on Facebook.