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Students talk about what makes a teacher great
by Maisie McAdoo | October 13, 2011 New York Teacher issue
Let’s set aside the hieroglyphics — the whacky value-added models no one understands. How can you identify an effective teacher?
Maybe ask the students they teach.
Even Bill Gates admits that “students seem to know effective teaching when they experience it,” based on the findings of his foundation’s multiyear Measures of Effective Teaching Project.
But students identify great teachers by more personal — and more universal — measures. In a new and modest booklet, “Student Voices: What Makes a Great Teacher,” New York City teen writers recall teachers who helped them learn to navigate the confusing world around them.
Published in August by the College Board and Youth Communication, a New York-based writing program, the booklet contains five essays by city high school students. They recall teachers who were strict, zany or sweet, but who escorted them, gently but surely, into adulthood.
Irving Torres, a senior this year at George Washington HS, wrote about Ms. Ackert, who taught him for three years after he was assigned to a special education class in middle school. “School was hard. I didn’t fit in,” he said in a recent interview. He was bullied and he withdrew.
But his new teacher was calm. “She sat down a moment. I just got attached to her,” Torres said. Shy and scared, he still knew he had some talent for writing descriptions, and Ms. Ackert encouraged it. When he was prevented from joining a writing program because he was in special education, Ms. Ackert was “red with rage.” She told him to make a poster board that displayed all of his writing and present it to the principal. He wound up recommending Torres for an even better writing program.
First and foremost, a classroom environment “must feel safe for students to express themselves,” Pamela Ackert, who has taught at IS 52 in Washington Heights for 14 years, said in a phone interview.
“Because he (Irving) was so quiet and easily upset, writing was a way,” she said. During lunch periods, she let him stay in her classroom where she kept an enormous library, a legacy from her own father. Torres was the first to finish her 25-book requirement. He wrote more and began to come out of his shell.
Torres moved back to general education for high school and will graduate this year. But he goes back to visit Ackert regularly. “She is still the same great teacher I met on that unforgettable September morning,” he said.
David Etienne’s idea of a great teacher also was forged in middle school. Mr. Jean Pierre taught English as a second language to a class of Haitian students in Crown Heights and practically showed them how to survive in the United States. “He was strict on us,” Etienne recalled. So were his former teachers in Haiti, but there a fear of corporal punishment pushed students to learn whatever was assigned. “They didn’t teach us to think broadly or be creative,” he writes.
Pierre, who taught Etienne for two years, spoke Creole in welcoming him rather than the French his Haitian teachers had used. Pierre had the class invent their own sentences with the 10 to 20 new vocabulary words he introduced each day, a creative exercise Etienne found challenging at first but grew to love. He taught his students how to behave at a job interview and “how to stay focused even when everything might seem to be against us.” Etienne said he never forgot Pierre’s advice that $200 spent on books would take them further than $200 sneakers.
Etienne took Pierre’s lessons with him. When he became president of the senior class at his Brooklyn high school, he changed the culture there so that older students reached out to younger ones rather than intimidating them. “If I didn’t have Mr. Jean Pierre as a teacher, I would have treated new kids the way I had been treated,” he said. Pierre has since returned to Haiti to help his nation rebuild.
Sara Wolf’s powerful social conscience was an ideal fit for her global studies students at International HS in Queens when Percy Lujan attended. Lujan, now a journalism student and news editor for the Lehman College newspaper, recalled that Wolf taught the French Revolution by having students take on the cause of the commoners of the third estate while she, as Marie Antoinette, disparaged their views. “That class discussion made me realize the beauty of democracy and why some people die to obtain it,” Lujan writes.
“I learned a lot from her, not only on the subject she taught but what she taught us as a person,” he said in an interview. “I learned it’s not enough for you to sit and wait for things to change. You have to act on things to get a result.”
Great teachers like Wolf, Lujan said, teach students to present their ideas, not just learn those of others.
Good teaching, he said, turns students into thinking citizens. Nazis instilling racist values or the government boarding schools that taught Native American children to deny their cultures could be considered teaching, he said, but real education is not that. “It’s about giving students the tools to be free human beings,” Lujan said.”
Wolf, who was a chapter leader at International HS, now trains teachers in Haiti. On a visit there two years ago, she writes in an email, she found “a deeply entrenched system of rote education.” She could not accept it. “Now I live in Haiti full time,” she writes, “conducting teacher training with the hope that teachers become fearless of losing control and open up to the exciting possibilities of student curiosity.”