To the Editor:
Sam Chaltain’s Oct. 25, 2006, Commentary “To Make Schools Safe, Make All Children Visible” and Kirsten Olson’s Nov. 8, 2006, Commentary “The Wounds of Schooling” are sadly related.
Realizing the inestimable worth of good teachers, many of us are reluctant to expose the damage caused by some others. Parents and students are reluctant to come forward with information for fear of recrimination. Administrators who do receive complaints must prove incidents and frequently contend with teachers’ unions that defend the indefensible, even when teachers know what is going on as well as or better than the building principal.
Teachers can hurt students without realizing it. Some use a booming voice to surprise and intimidate. Others threaten pop quizzes or issue expressions of surprise when a student answers correctly. Worst of all are the teachers who use sarcasm, which is never funny but always biting, cruel, and demeaning.
Both Commentaries point out the importance of school climate, a concept that frequently is underestimated. If any of us analyzed what factors have helped us most in our lives, our answers would probably be very similar: a supportive atmosphere, belief in our ability, good mentoring, and helpful feedback. Knowing students well is our best investment in them, in addition to being our best safety measure.
The pressure of current testing has further exacerbated the wrong we do to students. When we force students to figure out what answers they are supposed to give, we put a ceiling on what all of us can learn. Of course skills are important, but we don’t even know the questions students will have to answer in the future. Flexibility of thinking and creativity will be more important than rote, controlled responses.
Teachers’ actions and words, good or bad, frequently outlive the teacher. This can be a blessing and a curse.
A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 2006 edition of Education Week as Two Essays Underscore Importance of ‘Climate’