Grading teachers: Tone is part of the conspiracy of learning

Grading teachers is less about what is taught than how it's taught. Parents should grade teachers on their tone and how they make kids feel cared for and appreciated in the conspiracy of learning.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Grading teachers on their tone in their conspiracy of learning with kids is the most insightful way to see how a teacher is doing. Teacher Linda Yip helps Hannah Sorensen and Najeeb Noor on a math problem during a summer school session for fourth graders at Harvard Kent Elementary School in Boston, on Aug. 1, 2012.

Here’s something I don't hear about very often in the school standards debate: the tone of teaching.

To this day, what I remember most vividly from my own middle school years is the tone of voice of my teachers — not what they taught me (though that certainly paid handsome dividends), but how they taught me (quadruple dividends).

Mrs. Tapley, Mr. Williamson, Mr. Stevens – they all had perfect pitch. The effect of their pedagogy and curriculum shows up to varying degrees in my adult writing, math skills, spelling, or geographical literacy. OK, long division still confounds me, but I have a good working knowledge of the earth’s important physical features; I can spell pretty good. But what I learned from them is not necessarily what I most remember – a clue as to what matters in schools. It was their tone – attitude and feeling, for me and for their academic subject – through which my teachers created an expectation for learning and a sense of aspiration. And this goes to the heart of the difference between standards and standardization.

Good teachers create a positive tone by making children feel cared for, understood, challenged, appreciated. Of course we also remember their moments of righteous indignation, mock ire, and withering glances. I can still hear Mr. Stevens, my fourth grade teacher, scolding Vicki Johnson for making a sixth trip to the pencil sharpener, in order to drop yet another note on Caroline's desk, instead of paying attention to his lesson on the apostrophe. I do not remember his lesson, per se. But Mr. Stevens somehow made it personal, and that is why I can form the possessive singular. I do not know if Vicki Johnson can say the same. His tone, though, conveyed its value.

I knew from their tone that my teachers were powerful, or not; knowledgeable, or faking it; sincere, or going through the motions; secure, or insecure. Looking back, I know that learning occurred most spontaneously, deeply, and lastingly for me when the tone was in sync with my developmental timing – and allowances were also made for the unique tenor of the given day. It was then that I allowed myself to be taught and conspired with my teachers to learn.

This is the fundamental transaction of good schools: students who can learn because their teachers know them intimately, have their trust, and ingeniously adapt information and skills in a way that is authentic.

I would like to think that my experience as a teacher and administrator includes some successes in effecting these transactions. I can be certain of precipitating many individual breakthroughs (“So that’s what that poem means!”); confident of training young writers in some key skills (even punctuating the possessive plural!), and hopeful that I’ve recruited, hired, and supported teachers whose gift for getting the tone right assured some future grateful memories of joyous learning. It would be my tribute to Mr. Stevens to think that I had, in fact, struck the right tone for just a few of my students and colleagues, just as he did for me.

Todd R. Nelson is head of school at The School in Rose Valley, PA.

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