Teachers who excel: A lesson from Miss Smoot

Nothing is more important in K-12 education than the quality of a teacher. But how do we make great teachers? We could start with someone like Jane Smoot.

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    Boston Kindergarten teacher Kerrin Flanagan prepares her classroom for new students.
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Where does intelligence come from? Biologists look to organic structures. Psychologists study influences and experiences. Theologians look to the spiritual.

All can agree that intelligence needs care and feeding. For that we have teachers to thank – parents, an aunt or uncle who takes an interest in us, a religious guide or workplace mentor, a thoughtful friend.

That’s the informal network. The formal one is the subject of this week’s cover story: schoolteachers. There are more than 7 million teachers in the United States, and millions more abroad. Teachers, writes Monitor staffer Amanda Paulson in a Monitor cover story, are the most important factor in student learning – more important than textbooks, tests, computers, classrooms, peer groups, study guides, or any other aspect of the education industry.

Almost all of us have felt the embers of intelligence glow because of a teacher’s careful attention. For me – and for generations of 12th-graders at William B. Travis High School in Austin, Texas – Jane Smoot was that teacher. Her love of prose and poetry inspired students across four decades. Her enthusiasm when a young writer assembled a composition in a way that conveyed the essence of an idea made you want to do even better next time.

But what makes a good teacher? And how can we make more of them? Amanda seeks answers. In our age of metrics, it is tempting to impose a formula for teaching excellence. As we know from standardized testing of students, data can be useful in charting progress (or slippage) over time and ensuring that no student is left behind. But metrics cannot capture the quicksilver of excellent teaching. For that, more qualitative observation is needed. Amanda explores that complex and controversial process.

For extra credit in understanding where excellence comes from, I recently checked out a book called “Burned In: Fueling the Fire to Teach.” It is a series of short essays by teachers about what motivates them, with an emphasis on how to avoid the too-
 common problem of burnout. In the first three years of their careers, half of all teachers get discouraged and quit. That’s an alarmingly high attrition rate. They feel dispirited, disrespected, or out of their depth. They feel impoverished, frustrated, swamped by paperwork and meetings. They usually feel all of those burdens simultaneously.

And yet, as Michael Dunn, a veteran high school English teacher, marvels, think of what they do: Each fall “there’s a whole new crop of human beings to grow, who never knew they could write a sonnet, or how effectively they are ‘played’ each day by advertisers, or how blessed they are to be able to question their government, or how passionate Emily Dickinson really was.…” 

Rosetta Marantz Cohen, a professor of American studies and education at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., has studied teachers who have stayed happy and committed. They are sustained, she says, not just by the mission of nurturing young minds, or by the high calling of safeguarding civilization. Most often, she finds, they love their subject – literature, language, chemistry, math. They pursue their subject in and outside the classroom.

Students know when teachers teach what they love. We knew that about Miss Smoot. You probably have a Miss Smoot in your life, too. Thank that person for stirring the embers of your mind.

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. You can reach him at editor@csmonitor.com.

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