The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

A Better Way to Be A Teacher

A recent article in the New York Times really surprised me. In reading that newspaper regularly for many years I have become used to long factual articles that inform me, but also bore me with so many details delivered without emotion. This time there were very personal opinions and lots of emotion. I really liked it.

Unexpectedly, David Brooks, a regular writer for the Times, who ordinarily deals with serious government matters, wrote about his own emotional experience and what it taught him about quality education.

One day while teaching a class at Yale University, Brooks told his students that he wouldn’t be able to meet with any of them that afternoon because a friend was coming to help him with a personal problem.

Because he had been very unemotional in that announcement, Brooks thought his students wouldn’t fret about missing a meeting or be concerned about his wellbeing. But unfortunately several students had gotten a different message than he intended. Because they thought Brooks was facing a serious problem, several of them sent written messages to him that evening expressing their sympathy and support.

That incident had a strong effect on Brooks, making him think differently about teacher/student relationships. He decided that a positive connection between a teacher and his students was the foundation of strong learning. He also decided that the key job of a teacher was to give students new things to like, such as an exciting field of study and some assistance when they were struggling.

Brooks ended his self reflection by referring to the recent changes made in many schools, and the fact that the Aspen Institute had recently published a national report titled “From a Nation at Risk to a National at Hope” He also mentioned that many schools no longer started academic instruction in the first week of school. Instead, through games and other group activities students got to know one another.

If you are wondering why I chose to write about Brook’s article, it was because it was so uncharacteristic of those usually on that Times page, especially ones by him. That article also reminded me of my own experiences as a teacher many years ago. Teaching was tough for me at the beginning, but it softened up when I started to behave like a grownup who cared.

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I’m Back Again and Happy to Be Here

How sweet it feels to put my fingers on my computer and speak to all of you again. Over the past month I was busy visiting members of my family living in different parts of the country.  Most of the places were pleasant and interesting.  The only bad situation I found  was the mistreatment of teachers in one part of Florida, reported in the Palm Beach Post on January 27th of this year.

What caught my eye as I opened the local newspaper where I was visiting, was a front page article with the headline: “In Poor Schools, Smaller Pay Raises.” Since I didn’t understand what that meant, I read the article immediately.  It reported that school principals were required to rate the quality of all teachers’ performance at the end of each school year, and that such ratings determined the amount of their salaries for the following year.

At most of the schools teachers’ ratings the next year were mixed, giving the impression that their skills and efforts were also mixed. But at one high poverty school the principal gave all his teachers zero ratings, which was unheard of before.  Now the article let everyone know. All zero rated teachers would be paid lower wages over the following school year–even if they moved to a different school–while teachers more highly rated would do much better wherever they went.

What I read made me furious, and immediately I wrote a letter to the editor. How could a principal make such a cruel decision for his entire staff knowing it would go public and destroy their careers?  Although my letter got a favorable response from the newspaper, it chose not to use it, instead posting only one much milder letter from a local person. Still, I can’t resist giving you my remembered version of what I wrote. Here it is below:

As a successful teacher for several years; then a principal of two schools, and later someone selected by the state of Wisconsin as “Principal of the Year”, I was deeply dismayed by the poor ratings of teachers at a high poverty school in your city.  If those teachers were really as bad as the principal rated them, he should have provided assistance for all of them early during the school year or dismissed them midyear as hopeless. By rating them as failures at the end of the year, he  achieved nothing more than disgracing himself along with his school. A principal’s job is to help teachers become the best they can be, to enjoy their job and care about everyone in it–even if they have to endure a block-headed principal.

Finally, I can’t help being glad that no other place I know of has such cruel and foolish practices. I strongly wish that the school system in Palm Beach County grows up and behaves like real professionals and wise educators.


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