This Is What It Really Means To Be A Good Teacher

by Christine Organ

When talking about education these days, we hear a lot about test scores and common core, teacher evaluations and underperforming schools. I’m a staunch proponent of public education, and I’m invested in my kids’ learning (natch), but you know what?

I don’t care about any of these things. Not the test scores. Not common core (I’m still not even entirely clear on what this means). And certainly not the traditional metrics for measuring teacher performance and what it means to be an “underperforming” school.

Spoiler alert: it’s a flawed system of evaluation. And metrics like test scores and the definition of what deems a school “underperforming” are wholly ineffective. They can’t possibly take into account the broad range of factors that go into a student’s learning process, or what makes for a “good” teacher. In fact, what makes for a good school or an effective teacher is nearly undefinable – but we know it when we see it.

My kids have had the good fortune to have had a number of fabulous teachers, and I can tell you that none of them were successful at their job because of the class’s averge test scores or even because my kids progressed along the graphs that “the experts” deemed appropriate.

Nope, in fact, it had nothing to do with grades or numbers or percentages.

As much as I want to make sure that my kids are “on track” (whatever that means), I’m less concerned with their progress as students than I am with their development as people.

So while things like reading, math, and science are undoubtedly important, what really matters isn’t how a teacher is drilling these concepts into their tiny little brains, but whether a teacher is helping a child become the best version of himself or herself.

When my oldest son was in second grade, I remember sitting on one of those teeny-tiny chairs and crying. Not because he was struggling or because there were some problems at school, but because his teacher talked about kindness and being a good friend. We talked about how my son could be a spitfire at times, and how he had difficultly sitting still and staying focused.

My husband and I talked about how the only – and I mean, the only – thing we cared about at this stage in his development was whether he was a good person. Was he kind? Did he help others? Was he respectful and a good friend? Did he invite others to join his recess games? Did he lift people up, or did he knock them down? And if he struggled with a new skill or concept, did he stick with it or did give up? Did he ask questions? Was he curious?

Those were the things I cared about, not whether he was at, above or below grade level in math facts or reading. I teared up as I talked about these things and about how I worried that his exuberance – his wild joie de vivre — might be a bit much for the classroom environment and I worried that it could be snuffed out. She reassured me that there was nothing to worry about, that my son was a kind boy who despite his impulsivity, lifted others up. Then she teared up too talking about these things. And in that moment, I knew without a doubt that she was one of the good ones. No, one of the great ones. Because any teacher who will share a few tears with you over the sweet innocence of second graders gets it. She really gets it.

Similarly, another teacher – this one for my younger son – comments frequently not on his knowledge or skills, but on his joy for learning. How he asks questions and shows a genuine curiosity. She also gets it. She, too, is one of the great ones.

My older son is now in fifth grade, and about to make the transition to middle school. It’s a big deal, and he’s had a few academic and social challenges this year. When his teacher discovered that his effort was directly related to his interest level, she committed to finding ways to pique his interests, instead of just insisting that he “try harder.” And when he was dealing with some social challenges, he didn’t look to me or his dad to handle it for him. Instead, he went straight to his teacher, trusting that she would help him. And she did. She gets it. She’s one of the great ones.

Of course, I want my kids to learn algebra and how to conjugate verbs, but not as much as I want them to learn about inclusivity and friendship, respect and kindness, self-advocacy and tenacity. And with things as important as these, my husband and I can’t do it alone. It really does take a village. It’s all hands on deck.

So yes, a good teacher might help a child learn to advance to the next reading level or understand advanced math. But a great teacher will help a child grow as a person, teach them how to be a good human, and empower them to be the best version of themselves that they can be.