What Makes a Great Teacher (cont’d)

In today’s Washington Post online, Jay Mathews runs a beautiful piece by my favorite education blogger, Susan Ohanian, where she describes how she engaged kids when she was a teacher. Susan is much too modest to call herself a great teacher, but she certainly deserves that title.

Here’s how it starts:

Eons ago, I persuaded my principal, who was starting a new school that had a state mandate and funds to be innovative, to do away with remedial reading (I was the remedial reading teacher). We called my room Resource and I announced I was an adjunct of the media center….

* * *

Mind you, I was still the remedial reading teacher–but we kept this secret from the kids. Teachers had a list of students who had to come to the room x times a week to fulfill our obligation to the state. For everyone else (K-6), it was student initiated: A child came when he could persuade his teacher to let him. There was no schedule and there were no bells. If the room got too crowded, as in 35+, I put a sign on the door: “Come back later.” Engineering students from a local university volunteered as on-site helpers, as did two neighborhood moms.

Over time, I found that the kids released from regular class most often were the really bright and those with great difficulties. And they worked well together.

One 2nd-grader was truly the most gifted kid I’ve ever encountered and he just about lived in Resource. I could go on and on abut his projects, most self-initiated. I did have one worry, and so at one point I asked my physicist husband to come in and work with him. “My goal,” I said, “is for Darryl to sit on the floor and wrinkle his pants, maybe even get dirty.” They made slide rules, played with a wind up train, figuring out load, velocity, and god-knows-what. On his own, Darryl made cottage cheese, wrote a letter from Queen Isabella to Columbus and investigated Fibonacci numbers. He also directed a play fifth-graders wanted to stage.

Read the entire piece.

8 thoughts on “What Makes a Great Teacher (cont’d)

  1. What a great article….about a lady who actually likes kids. When I was in public school a billion years ago, we had a Resource classroom and teacher in our school. She was a very large lady with a booming voice, but in her classroom, there was just one large round table and all her kids sat around that table to work. Her room was always bustling, and the kids loved her. She gave out hugs too…

    I agree Sara, Susan Ohanian was, is a great teacher.


  2. I had the sheer joy and privilege of a long email correspondence with Susan that spanned many years. I’ve lost touch with her and this conversation reminds me to re-ignite our conversations before my daughter graduates from high school. Once she does, I have the option of either washing my hands of the whole darned mess (compassion fatigue) or really finding my voice, and not worrying (even if ever so slightly) that her principal or teachers might read this.

    Susan is indeed the most remarkable inspiring teacher on the face of this planet. Any child fortunate enough to have been touched by her magic is a lucky individual indeed. The troubling question I’ve been pondering since this blog entry is why so few left? What happened? I know what happened, in some part. I just wanted to jump start a conversation.

    I met Susan years ago. My daughter was in kindergarten and I’d gone to hear her speak in DC. I bought my first Ohanian book that evening and couldn’t put it down. My daughter read it too. It’s “What Happened to Recess and Why Are Our Children Struggling in Kindergarten?” That book contains the delightfully amusing anecdote of the mother with the laundry basket that I’ve detailed in this space two years ago.

    I’ve gone on to read many more of Susan’s thought provoking works over the years. ‘m not much for plastering my car’s bumper but I couldn’t resist this sticker: “If you are not outraged, you are not paying attention.” I didn’t get it from Susan but I think of her every time I glance at my car’s rear.

    Susan is one of the most vocal critics of NCLB in this country. She and Alfie Kohn were my early inspiration and set me on this course. Swimming upstream can make you unhappy because when you stare at the Emperor, he’s naked as a buck. But at least you’ve seen the light.

    I encourage everyone to check out Susan’s web site: http://www.susanohanian.org. Also subscribe to her almost daily email list serv and send her an article you’ve caught. She puts out a compilation of articles and journals from all over. In fact, although I’d already read Sara’s book, it was through that list that I discovered stophomework. Also check out Susan’s new Huffington Post column.

    Full Disclaimer: I do NOT work for Susan. I’m merely a supporter and friend.

    P.S. The problem with all this education is when you occasionally sit down with school brass for whatever reason, you realize you are light years ahead of them. It can make for some very frustrating meetings and you find yourself swallowing hard. If only we could work in tandem and the school could benefit from all our collective wisdom and knowledge. But they never ask. Perhaps they don’t want to know.


  3. I’m not much, meant to write. The I slinked off before I caught it. I’m using my daughter’s laptop and while it’s a sleek machine, it gets in the way of my typing.


  4. Well said, HomeworkBlues…I like that bumpersticker. Right now that encompasses my feeling about alot of things in education and with our kids. How can people not see these things, and if they do, why do they think it’s OK???
    I’m humming at a different frequency often, but find a lot of “hummers” here on Stop Homework who seem to be singing the same song as I am and that’s good.


  5. Thanks for the kind words, PsychMom. I was thinking the same thing. I’ve written a lot since I joined this blog. Yet nothing has changed at my daughter’s school. In fact, it’s only gotten worse. Each day when I pick up my daughter, my shoulders tense up, each afternoon I know all we have to look forward to is yet another dreary afternoon of homework that seems to stretch interminably. Each day I have to reinvent my ethos, again examine her load and figure out how to spark my quiet rebellion, how to convince her to blow off some assignments and go to sleep. I know nothing will change for us at this school.

    But at least here, in that long line of gaping mouths at the silly emperor, I have found a chorus of people whispering, you’re right, HE IS NOT WEARING ANY CLOTHES!!!! Look and you’ll see! It’s as clear as daylight!

    Action is key. But when all else fails, we at least come together to seek validation. And for those of you with younger children, keep up the good fight. Do what I did if you can. Homeschool. Find your voice. Find your power. Take back your family. A childhood is a terrible thing to waste.

    “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” Alice Walker


  6. Loved this account! Interesting point about the advanced & struggling students working well together, and even more interesting about assessments having gone up for the kids involved in this very engaging classroom, even though this teacher was doing the exact opposite of teaching to a test. My theory — could seem pie in the sky to some — is that test scores will go up when kids are engaged in active learning with a great teacher…no matter what material he/she covers. Maybe because a classroom (and teacher) like this puts such a heavy emphasis on problem solving. Good problem solvers test better & do better in life.


  7. I was looking for a place to put this and then remembered, oh, wait, stophomework recently did a bit on good teachers. Perfect!

    I’m a big fan of Lenore Skenazy’s Free Range Kids. To wit, I discovered her right here on Sara’s blog! Likewise, Lenore promotes Stop Homework on her blog, she thinks just as highly of Sara Bennett. Lenore recently linked to two of stophomework’s blogs and wrote about it. I of course commented extensively but one insistent man (can we say bully?) accused us of mollycoddling our young and that an anti-homework stance conflicted with that whole free range concept.

    Bear with me. I’m on a tangent and will get to the main point in a moment. I argued, as we have here, that no. In fact, homework overload allows children no down time, no self directed time and their entire after school day is spent on completing adult directed tasks and learning to be good little boys and girls. It deprives them of free play, free range, playing in the woods, for example.

    Okay, moving on to my main point. Lenore’s been doing some posts on how educators strip kids of every last bit of free range, the latest being some idiotic principal denying children free play during recess. So Lenore then put out a call to teachers, asking them to share stories of how they encourage free range kids, even in the face of fierce dictatorship.

    Fortunately, Lenor got got some hefty responses. Do know that many commenters highlight the stay at home moms at schools; you know, the ones I like to call Stepford Wives, the ones overly invested in their child’s achievements. Look, I’ve had my beef with them too. Yet, not all stay at home moms are like that! Many I know are nurturing and care more about their children as individuals than how much they can achieve in the shortest amount of time.

    I’ve been a stay at home mom myself at time, not by design, but my zeitgeist lies more with the working moms. Like so many of you here, I’m not a helicopter mom but a nurturing one (I know the difference!) and have enjoyed every second spent with my daughter.

    So…back to the teachers. What could be wrong? Teachers write in, telling us how they are producing free range kids. That would include (we hope) less homework, and an acknowledgement that children need time to play, time to read, time to go places with their families. What could be better? Wow, you are thinking. Finally. After the diatribes we’ve seen here by some teachers, how wonderful, what a breath of fresh air.

    Not so fast. Read the comments. I’ve read a few and will read the rest tomorrow. Already I’m depressed. Look at the vitriolic tone. Note the disdain towards mothers. FedUpMom, I know you’ll get exercised about this so PLEASE write here with your reaction. I implore all of you to write in there too and note that you are cross-commenting.

    Many of the responses virtually drip with condescension towards mothers. Note the patronizing tone. They disparage stay at home moms but think of how many teachers here have also been hostile towards working mothers. Think of the working moms, particularly the single ones, who in addition to providing a roof over their children’s heads and bread on the table, must spend hours and hours not being allowed to play or interact with their children. If they protest, they are deemed loser moms. Now that’s really supporting working mothers!

    The hidden (or not so hidden) message? We really don’t care what you are, stay at home or working as long as you BUTT OUT and just do what we ask. Without questions. As Disillusioned wrote, you are either for us or against us.

    I found the disdain deplorable. I was not amused. Too bad that a blog that was supposed to highlight good teachers wound up only emphasizing the weak points in the link. Lenore, if you are reading this, you meant so well and I applaud that you fight to bring play and free range to the attention of teachers. But please do a follow up in support of parents who are really there for their children.

    I have a 2e child. If I never advocated, if I never spoke up, her teachers would be thrilled. Lovely. Because long after my daughter is a fading memory, I have to deal with the detritus of an education missed. There are just those times when parents MUST speak up. In matters of a learning difference, ADD, 2e, bad homework, just to name a few. What about parents of gifted kids who fight to bring after school enrichment in? Are they pushy or finding ways to enrich their children? Yea, a lot of them are pushy PTSA moms, but what about the others, the ones that are trying to create change?

    All of us here know it’s all about nuance and painting all of us with one broad stroke is deleterious to everyone. No one wins when resentment always simmers just below the surface. In the time teachers are trashing mothers, they could be building alliances. It’s all about building bridges, not tearing them down. And the first place to start is with the teachers.


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