In praise of teaching

LAST May, when the first reports on the crisis in our public schools were reaching the media, Cornell University welcomed to campus a sprightly 94 -year-old retired schoolteacher named Harriet Davis. The visit proved a unique opportunity to contrast the conventional wisdom about America's mediocre teachers with a flesh-and-blood example of what a good teacher is.

Harriet Davis taught mathematics at Washington High School in Massillon, Ohio , for 43 years, and, given the rate at which today's teachers are leaving the profession, her tenure alone seems remarkable.

In an age when a depressingly large number of physical education instructors are teaching mathematics under emergency certificates, it should be noted that Miss Davis knew her subject thoroughly. She obtained a college degree when such credentials were not expected of schoolteachers, and she continued to learn throughout her long and productive career.

But Miss Davis did not know only math. She knew something about psychology and sociology. She knew about the world far beyond Massillon as a result of extensive travels abroad. Most important, she knew about children - how to motivate them, how to encourage them, how to produce in them the same enthusiasm for the subject that she herself felt.

She was particularly welcoming toward students who had failed ninth-grade algebra, and she took it as her special challenge to make these math-haters love the subject. Her incentive was neither merit pay nor status as a master teacher, but rather the simple satisfaction of kindling a love of learning in young people others had failed to ignite. Tough but fair, she expected the best of her students and encouraged them to expect it of themselves.

Indeed, it was because she had encouraged one of her students to set high goals and achieve them that Harriet Davis was on campus in the first place. Some 40 years ago, she had persuaded Donald Berens, then an aspiring and somewhat impatient young man, to continue his education. Berens had already attended Ohio State and served in the Marine Corps, but he took her advice, came to Cornell, earned a bachelor's degree in economics, and went on to become the largest franchisee of the chain of stores known as Hickory Farms of Ohio.

Donald Berens never forgot Miss Davis and the role she had played in his life. This spring Berens and his wife, Margaret, established a graduate student fellowship in Harriet Davis's honor and brought her to Cornell to meet the first recipient.

The story does not end here. As we drew up a guest list for the day's festivities, it emerged that three of our most distinguished faculty members - a geophysicist, a plant pathologist, and a specialist in industrial and labor relations - had also studied math in Miss Davis's classroom. They, too, remembered her with great affection.

Harriet Davis is worth remembering as we sift through the recent avalanche of reports on the American educational system.

Yes, we must increase teachers' salaries. Bright young men and women, who were the backbone of the profession, can now find more lucrative positions in medicine, law, or industry.

Yes, we need to revise curricula; the current ones are frequently weak, fragmented, and outdated.

Yes, we need better equipment, especially in the sciences, which are reduced to tedious abstractions without laboratory exercises and experiments.

Yes, we need more contact hours; our children get far less than 180 days of instruction when one takes into account the activities, from basketball to band practice, that routinely take them out of the classroom.

But we should be wary of purely mechanical solutions. Our most important task is to find and to nurture the Harriet Davises among us: to inspire them with the opportunities and rewards of teaching and to reveal it as a worthy profession of surpassing importance. Good teaching has always been a matter of the heart and the spirit as well as the mind, and in Harriet Davis's long career we can see the glorious transformation that a gifted teacher can produce, not only in skills and knowledge but in personal commitment and individual fulfillment.

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