Tuesday, October 25, 2011

When we lost what was really important

In one of my recent blogs, I wrote about a teacher whose “intangibles” could not be measured by student test scores or a complex algorithm.  It read: His lesson plans are sketchy – at best. His record keeping leaves a lot to be desired.  He operates under the “it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission” mantra most of the time.  But he knows his subject area better than most college professors.  His vocabulary, writing and critical thinking skills are unparalleled.  More important, he knows how to relate to his students – from the nerd who sits alone in the back of the room to the loud-mouthed girl who is taking care of three younger siblings at home.  He makes learning meaningful and relevant, and they remember the life lessons he teaches them – as well as the subject area lessons – long after they leave his classroom.  His effectiveness cannot be measured by a protocol and certainly is not accurately reflected based on how his students perform on one test. 

That “teacher” was actually an amalgam of several teachers I have worked with over the past 20 years.  One of those teachers was Mike Martin.  This past week, Mike passed away.  He was only 66 years old and had just recently retired.  His death has caused me to consider (re-consider) my role as an educator, father and husband. 

Over the years, I have had many opportunities to leave the classroom and pursue other career opportunities.  To be honest, on more than one occasion, I was more than ready to close the book (pun intended) on my teaching career. 

What kept me coming back – and keeps me coming back each year – is the reason why so many teachers enter the profession and stay in it year after year.  It’s not the “cushy retirement” (30 years in the classroom for less than 50% of your top five years).  It’s not the “three months off in the summer” (which is really 11 weeks for kids and 8 weeks for teachers, which is really more like 5 or 6 weeks for dedicated teachers).  It’s not the “no weekend hours” (all teachers spend countless hours working over the weekend – in and out of school). The reason is simple.  For me, for my wife, for the teachers I work with, and for Mike Martin, there is (and only has been) one reason – our desire to share our love for learning with the kids.

Mike Martin’s career spanned 40 years in the classroom.  During those years, Mike witnessed (and endured) countless programs, assessments and educational pedagogies.  Despite working in a profession that was in a constant state of flux, Mike’s primary focus was making learning meaningful for kids.  His classroom was filled with models, magnets, rocks, compasses, fossils, puzzles and an array of “hands on” learning activities.  Mike was never concerned with the X’s and O’s of teaching.  That wasn’t important to him.  Relating material in ways that kids would remember and understand was.  Comments former students have made on Facebook are a living testament to his “old school” approach to teaching and learning.

Mike’s passing should be a wake up call to those who make policies and laws that affect our schools and children.  Losing Mike should be a reminder that the “old school” approach, one in which children were the primary focus, is dying too. 

We cannot bring Mike back, but it is not too late to bring back some perspective to teaching.  Do we need to assess students?  Sure we do.  Can test scores help us understand our students’ strengths and weaknesses?  Of course they can.  Should we monitor teacher performance and look for ways to improve instruction?  Absolutely.  Have we made student assessments (and now teacher evaluations) far too much of a focus in education?  If you would have asked Mike that question, his response would have been “heck yeah.”
Rest in Peace, Mike.  You will be missed in more ways than one.

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