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What Mattered Most to Keysha

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Keysha was a student in my 1st grade class last year. At the beginning of school, she rarely completed or even started any of her assignments; she walked aimlessly around the room, stayed to herself, and often left the classroom without permission. She didn’t seem to grasp even the simplest routines and procedures. When I tried to talk to her, she either looked blankly at me and did not respond or would burst out into tears. Keysha was an outsider, looking in, rather than a participant in our class community.

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I tried everything I knew to get through to her, but nothing seemed to work. One day, as I was trying to persuade her to come out from under the table where she was hiding, I couldn’t help but think to myself (with some small sense of indignation): “Doesn’t she know I am an accomplished teacher?”

I meet my state's definition of "highly qualified" under No Child Left Behind. I have full state certification, a college degree, and subject-matter competence. Furthermore, I hold a master’s degree in education and certification as a Reading Recovery teacher, and I received national recognition as a Milken Educator in 2002. So why didn’t all my credentials and accomplishments mean anything to Keysha?

Then I recalled what I had learned from students during an action-research project, when I asked the question, “What is a good teacher?”

Policymakers, education leaders, parents, educators, and the general public all seem to have their definitions of quality teaching, but what I found missing were the voices from within the classroom—from students themselves. As a teacher researcher with the Teachers Network Leadership Institute, I set out to discover how students would describe quality teaching. Would they be able to articulate what good teachers do? I did not use a complex questionnaire or provide a list of possible characteristics. I simply asked students—over 330 of them ranging from ages 4 to 18—to tell me in their own words.

What I found was that students had a list of characteristics and teaching practices they valued in their teachers, and that the list changes at different stages of development.

• Primary students (Prekindergarten to 2nd grade) valued characteristics such as being nice, taking care of their personal needs, and respecting students. They expected good teachers to (in the words of one student) “help us get more smarter.”

• Elementary students (grades 3 to 5) felt that good teachers were nice and friendly, but also smart and funny. Students also defined good teachers as those who knew how to make learning fun and engaging while providing clear expectations for the classroom. Good teachers “have hope for all of us,” and “instead of using the book, they do things when we are ready.”

• Middle school students felt good teachers were enthusiastic, had a sense of humor, and were supportive and fair. They felt effective teachers were strict, but not mean, knew how to teach, and created fun projects. Rewards and acknowledgement were also important for these pre-teens.

• High school students were more specific. They agreed that good teachers know the students they teach, have a sense of humor, and know how to motivate. But they also defined quality teaching as knowing how to teach specific subject matter in engaging ways and apply it to real life. The best teachers, they said, challenge and push students to think. Students spoke of teachers who “wouldn’t let me give up on myself.” Good teachers, they said, “are not there just to get paid, but to enrich the minds of students and fill them up with hope for the future.”

Teacher qualifications are important, but they alone do not ensure quality teaching and learning. Nowhere in all my teacher coursework did I learn what to do when a student like Keysha retreats under a table during class. Teaching is a highly skilled and complex endeavor. If we are to ensure that all students receive quality instruction, we must begin to look closely at all the factors that lead to quality teaching, not just the ones that are easiest to quantify or have the most political appeal.

In my own case, with so much focus on student performance and fast-paced curricula, I had lost touch with the dual nature of teaching. Quality teaching involves both the head and the heart. All my content knowledge and teaching strategies didn't matter to Keysha at that moment. What mattered most to Keysha, I found, was having a teacher who was patient, cared for her unconditionally, and who would take the time to get to know her family and her history.

I cannot say that by the end of my year with Keysha, she had meet all her state standards and scored proficient in all areas of the curriculum. But she was completing class assignments more regularly and beginning to grasp academic skills that would enable her to be successful at the next grade level.

As I teacher, I could not change the complexity of her home life and past experiences, but I was able to provide a safe environment for her to take risks, establish friendships, feel a sense of community, and learn that she was capable of achieving anything she set her mind to. The same little girl who used to hide under tables now walks by my classroom with a sense of confidence and a smile.

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