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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 10/ 8/2009

The Group: Our Kids' Teachers, Good and Bad

By Valerie Strauss

Today The Answer Sheet’s Group of Moms discusses teachers. Please relate your own experiences in the comments section. E-mail The Sheet with issues you’d like us to address.

It is October and by now we have formed opinions about our children's teachers. Let’s talk about what makes a good teacher and a poor one. Should you request teachers? What do you do if you have a bad teacher? And what should we, as parents, expect from the school principal?

This Week’s Members:
Meg Arcadia is a teacher homeschooling a 10-year-old boy; she has a 3-year-old son.
Charlotte Osborn-Bensaada is a legislative librarian with one child in a D.C. public school and a 3-year-old starting in a charter school program.
Peg Willingham works for a nonprofit health research organization; she lives in Virginia, where her daughter attends a public high school.
Linda McGhee is a psychologist, school counselor and professor; she lives in the District and works in Bethesda. Her son is a fifth-grader in private school.
Valerie Strauss is The Answer Sheet.

Thank you for asking this about this because it’s given me the opportunity to realize how fortunate we are. We have been extraordinarily lucky in terms of teachers and principals for the past 10 years.

The three different principals (elementary, middle and high school) have been wonderful, and I am impressed that the high school principal greets students in the morning at the school entrance and also attends both lunches. He strikes me as very hands-on and in touch with what is going on at the school and beyond.

When we first met the elementary school principal, she seemed rather businesslike, but a few minutes later we saw a young child race up to her in the hallway and give her a big hug, and that told us what we really needed to know. She turned out to combine the best features of a no-nonsense CEO with a compassionate and committed educator.

The middle school principal was also stellar and really set the tone for the whole school. The few times we ever had to talk to the principals about issues over the years, they were extremely attentive and responsive.

As for the teachers, the only one who ever remotely approached not being great was one who did a competent job but was close to retirement and seemed to be less committed than some of the other teachers. In general, school environment seems much better than back in the olden days, and teachers seem much more alert to bullying and other problematic behavior. My daughter has had so many creative, affectionate, and dedicated teachers and we owe them a great deal.

Like Peg, we have been quite fortunate in having great teachers in both public and private schools. In my personal and professional life, I have the chance to observe many teachers and what makes a good one is the ability to figure out the essence of the child, what makes them tick and how to bring the best out of them. Children seem to relate to teachers whom they feel really care about them. They are really good at spotting inauthenticity and indifference.

Some teachers know how to approach children in a way that instills confidence in the child to express themselves and grow. The ability to relate diplomatically to parents is also important. Sometimes a child and teacher relate in positive, productive ways that are not so obvious to the parent or other observers. I have a friend who really did not understand a teacher’s methods but was really amazed at how much progress her children experienced under that teacher.

I would say generally here are the qualities I would describe in a great teacher:
--Sets consistent and high standards for all students and their parents
--Communicates well with children at their level and within their learning style
--Consistent and focused disciplinary policy
--Brings in new ideas and technology as supplements to the state mandated standards
--Immediately alerts parents if their child is struggling to address options for assisting them.
--Strong grasp of the curriculum and standards so that they can understand how concepts interrelate.

What makes a lousy teacher-- that can be a myriad of factors, but these are my red flags:
--Resents parent involvement and refuses to generally communicate with parents
--Belittles a child
--Lacks organization
--Lacks charisma. If they are so tedious that they can’t keep your attention, they often can’t keep your child’s either. "Anyone, anyone, Bueller" is only funny in the movies.
--Inconsistent discipline-- this really shows up when kids believe they can pick on each other.
--Lack of concern when a child is not on grade level

As for not having a good teacher, this is where defense matters, I would say you really need to plan ahead and request teachers. Ask around so that you are not surprised. It is one of the most significant reasons I try and stay involved in the school.

If you have a lousy teacher raise the issues early and often and talk to other parents. Sometimes your concerns are wacky and it is worth talking to other parents to have a frame of reference. If you do decide to go to the principal make sure you have concrete examples of problems.

As for a principal, what makes a good principal is what makes a good CEO. They must care about what they are producing, communicate effective goals and outcomes and hire great people. Their challenge is that they must communicate these roles to everyone from parents, teachers and students often in adverse circumstances. I would say that principals often make the difference between teachers being amazing and just good or OK.

This one is hard for me to answer. I am both a teacher and a mother. I hope that I do both well. At least that is my goal.

In my opinion, a good teacher is someone who cares enough to make it their priority to be the best they can, to find everything that is special about her students, to teach to her students’ strengths and discover each individual learning style. I will agree that you need to be 100% authentic, kids are able to see and feel what is in your heart.

My son has had the same teacher last year and this year for preschool. I love that I always feel welcome in the classroom, that she is accessible (I can contact her at school, home and by email) and that she is willing to work with me and my husband to make our child’s experience a great one.

Last year, she used some behavior modification techniques that I did not agree with. I realized that they were having a negative effect on my son, the direct opposite of their intention. When I discussed my feelings with her she was receptive and tried something new. She is not a bad teacher because she tried something that failed. Each student is different and you never know what will work and what will not. I was thankful that she wasn’t defensive. She is a great teacher because she kept trying and my son was happy at school. Parents and teachers are a team.

As for principals, well they set the tone for the whole school. I think it is important that she/he knows the students and their families.

My personal philosophy of education is based on my own childhood experience with my elementary school principal. His name was Dr. Edmond Barbieri and he was magical. He inspired the students, parents and teachers. Everyone loved to come to school. I can only hope that my child has someone so amazing in his life.

This is a huge subject and a lot has already been said for one post. The Answer Sheet will address this in more detail soon, including what parents should do if their child has a real problem with a teacher.

I will say that my children have indeed been lucky over and over.

And they started out so well: Meg was their first-grade teacher.

By Valerie Strauss  | October 8, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Tags:  The Group, teachers  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Is It Tougher Being a Kid Today?
Next: Teachers, Scientists and The Dalai Lama Hold a Different Kind of Education Conference


fr the article:

>...What makes a lousy teacher-- that can be a myriad of factors, but these are my red flags:
--Resents parent involvement and refuses to generally communicate with parents
--Belittles a child ...<

I had a sixth grade teacher who LOVED to belittle kids, esp the ones who didn't march in HER lockstep. She should have NEVER been given a teacher's license, as she clearly had no idea of how to do it.

Posted by: Alex511 | October 8, 2009 12:09 PM | Report abuse

I do not trust the judgment of any parent who cannot recognize a truly horrible teacher.

My son's first teacher was absolutely horrible (was fired at the end of the year), followed by an excellent teacher, followed by a teacher this year who I would deem "adequate or average."

I think the number one critical factor for being an excellent teacher is accepting personal responsibility for what occurs in their classroom! Every terrible teacher I've ever spoken to blames problems in their classroom on:
1. The Administration or The Union
2. The Students (some as young as 4 years old in Pre-K!!!)
3. The Parents
4. Society / TV / Music

Every truly excellent teacher I've ever had or seen in action has been a grown-up and accepted that they are personally responsible for everything that goes on in their classroom.

So far this year our teacher told us on Back to School night that the school system did not provide her with some equipment that she would like for the room. We each gave her $40 to buy the equipment. Problem identified and problem solved within 2 weeks of school starting. No whining. No accepting of failure.

Compare that to a teacher who whined and whined about how dirty his classroom was until the parents came in on a weekend and painted and mopped it. What a loser! Got fired.

Or a parent who claimed inexplicably that many of the students in our class had parents who were weighing out cocaine on the same table where they ate dinner? In Washington, DC where townhouses cost $900,000? AFAIK also fired and I'm sure she's still peddling some falsehoods about DC parents not paying attention to their children's education- suuuuure that's why you're out of a job and we're not.

Personal responsibility as a teacher is the number 1 identifier of a good teacher.

Posted by: bbcrock | October 8, 2009 1:08 PM | Report abuse

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