"Tell me about the best teacher you had in high school?" I have put this question to students in my adolescent psychology classes whenever I taught the course during the past 27 years at St. Joseph's College in Patchogue.
The responses in all those years have been strikingly similar. My students described how their best teachers made them feel in class and how they connected to them. Enthusiasm, responsiveness, engagement, challenge, and a relaxed, friendly atmosphere were important but teachers who knew their students as individuals and what was important to them was primary.
I was a school psychologist for more than 25 years working mostly at the elementary school level, and I found that those students valued the same qualities in teachers as my college students. Elementary school students do well with teachers who connect with them and not so good with those who do not. In fact, whenever I heard a teacher say, "I love this kid," I knew that student was going to have a great year academically and socially.
It wasn't standardized test scores, or previous report card grades, or other teachers' evaluations. What is key is the teacher's gut feeling about his or her individual students.
In the controversy over state teacher evaluations and high-stakes testing, prepping, cheating, and opting out, I've found limited emphasis on the qualities of teachers my students find most important to their success. I also chuckle to myself, in this age of intense and costly evaluations of teachers and in depth testing of kids, over the amount of energy expended trying to find out which teachers are doing their job. Ask any teacher -- elementary or high school -- who is a good teacher and they will tell you that teachers know, parents know, and kids know. The only people who don't know are bureaucrats far away from the classroom.
And guess what, those good teachers, especially in elementary schools, are more likely to get the most behaviorally and academically challenging kids, which can skew state teacher evaluations. There are some bad teachers, but I would argue very few and that everyone in the school community already knows who they are. So let us not delude ourselves into thinking that this state teacher evaluation system is, at best, anything more than redundant and, at worst, may mislabel some good and bad teachers.
My final concern about the evaluation system is that distant decision-makers will straitjacket teachers into using a predetermined, boring, and formalistic style to prepare children for the increasingly important high-stakes standardized testing so they don't get fired. This will drain teachers of their creativity and students will begin to lose focus and enthusiasm. Teachers required to use a rigid style resort to power tactics to control a class, which deadens the atmosphere and diminishes creative and academic opportunities.
Teachers have to find their own authentic voice. Skilled teachers use a multitude of different styles but all effective teachers know who their students are, fill their classes with a positive atmosphere, and expand their students' intellectual world.
Gerard Seifert is a senior lecturer in psychology at St. Joseph's College.