It was just a few years ago that I accidentally ran into Polly McDowell, my now-adult daughter Jennifer’s 5th grade teacher. We were both standing at the Metro station, waiting for a train to downtown Los Angeles for a district training. Polly told me that she was teaching a full load—five English classes at a nearby middle school. She had to have been almost eighty, and I would later learn, ten years into her retirement. I was amazed! I thought I was working hard!
That was the last time I spoke to Mrs. McDowell, who over the years had become “Polly” to me. An African-American teacher, Polly McDowell taught for some time in a mostly white suburb of Los Angeles. Her humanity, brilliance, and teaching skills made her one of the community’s most respected and beloved teachers. I was saddened recently to read in my district’s union newsletter about her passing, but not surprised by her many accomplishments, including several national teaching awards.
Though admirable, those achievements pale in comparison to the profound impact Polly McDowell had on her students, including my daughter, — and the unending dedication to teaching she demonstrated during her 33-year career. Although Jennifer started in private school, her transition to our local, public elementary school was seamless and positive, thanks to Polly. Jennifer adored Mrs. McDowell as a teacher and Polly McDowell helped to shape our child intellectually. She taught her a great deal about justice and truth--two lessons Jennifer never forgot.
“Mrs. McDowell was the kind of teacher whose influence permeated everything—my quest for knowledge, my understanding of history, my place in the world,” Jennifer shared with me recently. “She helped teach me to question what I thought I knew as well as what others told me. She inspired my curiosity. She believed in me, which pushed me to always strive to be the best student and person I could be.”
What better testimony to quality and effectiveness could any teacher hope for? Though we saw each other infrequently, Polly stayed in my heart and mind. I considered her a kindred spirit. I hoped my students admired me as much as Jennifer admired Mrs. McDowell.
When Jennifer graduated from high school in 1992, I simply couldn’t let the milestone pass without contacting Polly. I tracked her down and wrote a letter, telling her of Jennifer’s college plans and thanking her for her positive influence. She called me at once. “I always thought Jennifer and I were soul mates,” she shared.
Jennifer, my six-foot blonde, went on to graduate with highest honors from U.C., Berkeley. Her honors thesis was a comparison of three relatively unheralded African-American women authors. Polly’s voice was woven throughout: her lessons on the history of the African-American experience, her love of literature and history, her stance for women. I had lost track of Polly by then, as she’d returned to Mississippi to care for an ailing sister. However, I never lost sight of the strong influence of this fine teacher on my elder daughter, so I was delighted when we happened to bump into each other at that Metro station after those many years had passed.
When I read Polly McDowell’s obituary, so many thoughts came flooding in. I thought in part about the No Child Left Behind Act. Since its inception, we have read constantly about how to find, define, train, and assess for “teacher quality” and/or “teacher effectiveness” in order to root out “bad teachers.” Yet, we teachers instinctively know that much of what we do that signifies real quality cannot be assessed in simple, objective terms such as standardized test scores. Of course, Polly McDowell prepared my daughter well for her next academic year. Indeed, she challenged my daughter all too well--after a year with Mrs. McDowell, Jennifer had a rough transition to a middle school with much lower expectations for its students than Mrs. McDowell had for hers.
But it’s obvious that there were other, intrinsic qualities to Polly’s teaching that created that perfect year for my daughter—qualities we must learn to identify by whatever means and measures necessary. As we move on in our quest to improve teacher performance by adopting national standards and national assessments, I urge us all to promote a broader view of what it means to be an effective teacher. With enough informed will, we can find a means to identify, assess, and reward all the qualities a great teacher must possess. That would be a fitting tribute to the influence of Polly McDowell and other exceptional teachers like her.