Good schools, good people

testing does not recognize

11/19/2010  |  SAMUEL J. SPITALLI
teaching methods

One of my best teachers was my worst nightmare, and I am still thanking her to this day. As a second semester high school senior, I rightfully believed that I was entitled to early retirement. So, I enrolled in an elective course that I thought would be a sleepwalk, having been assured that it would be easier than any “academic” class. This is the class they used to call “Typing,” but is now known as “Keyboarding.”

Swaggering into the room the first day, I observed a little old lady with orange hair standing at the front of the classroom full of typewriters — to a cool teenager like me, every teacher was old. Thinking initially that the class was going to be piece of cake, I took my place behind one of the typewriters and noticed that its keys were all blank. Raising my hand, I asked the teacher if there was something wrong with my typewriter because all of the keys were blank. Smiling, she said, “They are all blank.”

“You see,” the teacher would continue, “they are all blank because typists are not supposed to look at the keys — that would just slow you down.”  The teacher didn’t know that I really didn’t care if I was a slow typist or even a typist at all. Be that as it may, she proceeded to allay my fears because she said that by tomorrow, yes by tomorrow, we would all know where the letters and numbers were, and everything else, because we were going to have the keyboard, in the form of a template, memorized. She then distributed the template of the keyboard and said that we would not be able to type unless we had memorized the location of each and every letter, number, and symbol. If we struggled with that, she said kindly, she would be happy to give us a couple of days to commit it to memory while we practiced and speed-typed, “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of our country.” Needless to add, she had my attention.

I was immediately slapped with the realization that this class was not only NOT going to be a piece of cake, but it would constitute cruel and unusual punishment, maybe even abuse. It was a cold Chicago day in January, and I was sweating.

As it turned out, that course would mean the world to me. Bar none, it was the most practical course I have ever taken because it helped me to prepare innumerable papers, articles, reports, and research for years to come. Not only that, but she made a significant impact on me personally. She motivated me, encouraged me, and challenged me to do my best. Why? She had my number and beat me at my own game. She possessed a quality that researches would say years later is an essential characteristic of exemplary teachers — “withitness” — the ability to be fine-tuned to all the nuances of effective classroom management, including the creation of a positive, nurturing learning atmosphere where teachers and students respect each other and where learning is related to the real world.

Her influence on me was incalculable, and that inspiration did not manifest itself on an ACT score, Comprehensive Examination, or any standard measure of achievement, yet without this class and especially without this teacher, things would have been a whole lot more difficult for me in years to come.

A teacher’s nurturing encouragement cannot be measured on a test, yet the benefits can be life-long.

A special education teacher daily teaches children to spell, count, and decode words, as well as to refrain from spitting, hitting, kicking, or cursing at fellow students or teachers. She also manages to help them learn to sing and perform at school events. She even helps to improve her students’ personal hygiene or change their clothes when they have accidents. If her students are physically disabled, she may have to help change diapers, even though that is not in her job description.

She teaches social skills and helps students to understand how they are perceived by others. She works frustratingly hard at helping her students to do better, yet she understands they will struggle to learn even the most basic concepts. While her students’ gains might seem miniscule to others, they are huge for the students and their parents. This teacher knows that even though some of her students have deficits in certain areas, they also have many strengths. She trusts that they can and will learn — and she tries to capitalize on their strengths. She believes that they will not only merely survive but thrive — perhaps just like Temple Grandin did, the autistic associate professor at Colorado State University who holds a Ph.D. in animal science from the University of Illinois and has published five books.

A teacher’s belief that all students can, and will learn, cannot be measured on a test, yet it is well documented that teachers’ expectations affect how well students learn.

 A band teacher teaches students how to read music, how to count, how to keep a beat, and how to master the basic skills of musical instruments. He teaches self-discipline and the importance of practice in improving one’s talents and skills. He teaches what it means to be a dependable member of a group, to make a commitment, and to follow through with it. He shows students what can happen when students work together for the good of the group, which is always larger than the sum of its parts. At the very least, his students will learn leadership, patience, and dedication to a cause. They will have fun, learn to socialize, and learn to have poise and pride in their quality accomplishments. They will learn music and enjoy it for the rest of their lives, maybe even rely on it for a future occupation. This teacher’s students will win contests, perform in public, make recordings, and support their school’s programs. The students love it. The parents are thankful. The teacher is making a significant difference, and the community knows it. And the talent to make music is a tangible measure of success for millions to enjoy, often with envious thoughts of “I wish I could do that.”

The impact of a teacher inspiring a student cannot be measured on a test.

A school nurse treats over a hundred students a day but hasn’t lost sight of the fact that she also makes a difference, one student at a time. She administers medication when required, takes students’ vitals, keeps in touch with parents, ensures that inoculations and physicals have been done, renders emergency care when needed, advises staff and parents on contagious illnesses, raises awareness on blood-borne pathogens, and continually reinforces the importance of hand washing. She cleans scrapes and cuts and tends to sprained fingers. She may have to catheterize some students everyday. She is a good listener and observer of student behavior and knows how to make recommendations and referrals to other health providers if needed. Her students tell her things they won’t tell anyone else, and she maintains their confidence while responsibly serving their best interests and health needs.

She also guides students in their emotional growth and reinforces a positive self-image. She knows how to use a defibrillator and can be a life saver. She is a good person to have in the school, and her value is immeasurable by any standard.

Someone caring about your well-being can make a difference in the quality of your life, yet that difference is difficult to quantify.

A teacher of gifted children teaches ethics, leadership, accountability, and responsibility — qualities we most admire, but not always observe, in elected officials. They learn the art of compromise, negotiation and diplomacy. They will participate in mock proceedings, debate real-world issues for which there are no clear-cut answers, enjoy learning for its own sake, and become life-long learners. The teacher recognizes and understands her students as individuals. The teacher believes in each student’s potential. The teacher does not see a rebellious, awkward youth as much, perhaps, as a unique person who thinks outside the box and who has promise for the future. This student will return to school after graduating and thank this teacher for not giving up on him, for respecting him and for recognizing him as an individual, and having faith in his talent and drive to someday make something of himself. This teacher will be quietly embarrassed but eternally grateful that one of her former students believed that she made a difference. The teacher would think, “That’s why I got into teaching.”

A teacher’s belief in a student’s potential can be a source of internal inspiration that may not manifest itself until long after the student has left her care and moved on — and that belief is an intangible that is not testable.

A counselor accepts her responsibility for assisting in the intellectual, physical, and moral development of her students. She helps to identify her students’ personal needs and always works for what is best for the student. The counselor provides students with information that helps them to make important decisions and good choices. She will be attuned to what makes kids tick. She will be alert not only to their academic progress but also to signs of high-risk behavior, substance abuse, withdrawal, or depression. If her students become victimized by physical abuse, bullying or violence, she will use resources at her disposal to protect them, advocate for them, and give them personal skills to become resilient and strong. She will help her students and their parents understand test scores and all other measures of students’ academic progress. She will be responsive to parents’ requests for help in selecting a college or offer suggestions on changing self-destructive behavior. Her students’ parents know that she is doing everything she can to help their child become well-adjusted, motivated, successful and happy. If the counselor is the one person with whom your son or daughter positively connects and perceives as an important adult, then she has made a lasting impact, and your child is a better person because of it.

Helping students make appropriate life choices will affect them for the rest of their lives, yet those lessons do not come from a book and will not be learned and quickly forgotten after a test.

A seventh grade social studies teacher knows the importance of ensuring that his students understand geography, can read a map, know north-south-east-west (not right/left), and figure out the best way to get from point A to point B without using a GPS.

At the same time, he also wants students to know that social studies is about civility, individual and community responsibility, democracy and the workings of government, as well as ethics. For him, teaching social skills is a must, for cooperation, collaboration, teamwork, networking, and the proper work ethic are essential workplace skills. This teacher knows that he must do his part to help students raise their test scores in social literacy, yet feels remiss if he did not get them ready for citizenship and capable of making a positive contribution to society, which, he believes, is really what education is all about.

Students’ learning and accepting responsibility for their actions cannot be tested, yet learning how to be accountable may be the most valuable lesson they would learn.

The police resource officer quietly quashes a plot by a disgruntled and disturbed youth with a hit list bent on killing classmates, teachers, and the principal. The officer’s suspicions are alerted one day when he notices the student in a highly agitated and giddy emotional state while in the act of giving away expensive and coveted items to other students — CDs, DVDs, a pair of Air Jordans, a leather jacket, and cash. The cop knows that kids don’t do this unless something is up, and he realizes the student is saying his final farewells. Along with the hit list, an investigation reveals that the student has amassed a weapons collection in his room, including an assault rifle, handguns, live ammunition, survival knives, credible bomb-making tutorials and the floor plan of the school. Because the officer follows his instincts, a tragedy is averted.

Preserving a safe learning environment is fundamental to ensuring a positive climate in which students can learn. Without it, learning is virtually impossible, yet a school’s safety and security initiatives will not be reflected in high-stakes testing results.

The truth is that what really matters the most in education cannot be measured on tests, yet we have become a nation of myopic bean counters with a foolish obsession for testing children to death. Rather than tests being used as diagnostic instruments, just as they are in the medical field, they are being abused as punitive tools against both students and teachers. It reduces education to what Dr. William Glasser refers to as the “learn it, or I’ll hurt you” approach to teaching and learning.

When we judge teachers and schools solely on the basis of test scores, we fall into the morass of not being able to see the forest for the trees. If we fixate only on test scores as a measure of a school’s quality, we ignore the big picture and the purpose of education. And we also ignore the many, many exceptional things that good teachers do in the classroom every day, such as inspire kids, care for them, make a difference in their lives, prepare them to become responsible citizens and adults, give them the courage, initiative, and resourcefulness they will need to lead satisfying and productive lives, give them the gift of a love of learning, and help them to see that education can change their lives.

Professor Spitalli ([email protected]) is a former high school English teacher and public school administrator.

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