Reading & Literacy Opinion

It’s the Teacher, Not the Program

By Ardith D. Cole — March 12, 2003 4 min read
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There's another side to the ‘best reading method’ story: the teacher's side.

After reading many recent articles in these pages on “best reading method” research, I continue to feel that there’s another side of the story. Not the researcher’s side. Not the politician’s side. Not the business leader’s side. Instead, it is time for more of us to offer the teacher’s side for how kids become proficient readers.

More than 30 years ago, my reading professor, Robert M. Wilson, told our Teaching of Reading class that a good teacher could teach a child to read from a Sears catalog. After teaching hundreds of diverse students to read using a variety of school-imposed methods, from atomistic to constructivist, I endorse Mr. Wilson’s premise even more today than I did then. Why is that?

First and foremost, it is because I know that successful teaching has less to do with the classroom program than with the teacher-student relationship. Teaching is a service profession. Service involves heart as much as it does head. And in this current governmental phase that seems to validate only that which is measurable, hearts get hidden behind a body of quantitative research. This deluge often consists of studies undertaken by “scientists” who have never taught a classroom of kids to read (see, for example, the National Reading Panel).

And so, when we read that “privately financed studies” have tracked 4,300 students “to determine which of six commercial reading programs are effective in closing the achievement gap between struggling readers and their peers” (“Study to Compare Six Reading-Intervention Strategies,” Dec. 4, 2002), not only the general public, but even some educators come to believe that programs teach kids. They do not. Teachers teach kids.

Even some educators have come to believe that programs teach kids. They do not.

Programs validated through Power-4-Kids research,or even the federal government, cannot turn the proverbial sow’s ear into a silk purse—in this or any other profession. Programs don’t make mean teachers nice. They do not give the impatient teachers patience. Programs don’t dispense compassion. Nor do they understand that half the class does not speak English, or that most missed breakfast. Programs do not show how to listen to kids whose families eat their meals around television sets instead of a dinner table. They don’t share a caring look or a kind touch. Programs do not believe in kids. But teachers do all this and more.

Would you go to a doctor who had a slick program, but a stinky personality? Would you want a dentist who referred constantly to a program manual as she meandered around your mouth? Would you want a nurse who knew his stuff but had no compassion? Do you want your children and grandchildren taught by programs or by teachers? By knowledgeable, compassionate human beings or by computers?

Obviously, the very best teachers are those who are guided by both head and heart; they know their craft well and care deeply about those in their keep. Good teaching requires both.

Unfortunately, heart-teaching is not very measurable. So empirical researchers pretend it doesn’t exist. Nevertheless, a few braver professionals who investigate “best practices” do indeed describe the way in which heart matters. I am thinking, for example, of people like Richard L. Allington, Patricia M. Cunningham, Michael F. Graves, and Alfie Kohn. Unfortunately again, such research is not being funded much these days by the federal government because it does not align with the “medical model,” which restricts studies to only those using experimental and control groups with measurable results.

Perhaps more important to those who truly care about kids, however, is the fact that teacher-student relationships have little influence on educational purchase power and the economy of schooling; that is, they will not influence statewide textbook and test adoption. Nor would such adult-child bonding carry any political clout.

These relationships are powerful in other ways, however. They motivate knowledgeable, caring teachers to sneak good books into their state- restricted, corporate curriculum, for example. One sensitive teacher can nurture a lifetime love of learning. Many of us are fortunate enough to have had such teachers— even though no one ever scientifically measured their impact.

Can we measure a smile? A touch? A kind word? Patience?

Can we measure a smile? A touch? A kind word? Patience? What these unmeasurable gestures of a caring classroom relationship do is support one child at a time. Such relationships inspire compassionate educators to search every nook and cranny for the best way, the best book, the best time to teach even the seemingly unteachable student. Most important, caring teacher-student relationships make each child feel worthy, needed, creative, secure, inspired, and successful—all facets of what it takes to be truly human. And also facets of what it will take to make a better world.

These are the reasons we successful reading teachers will always be able to teach a child to read—using even a Sears catalog if we have to. Maybe someday in the future those in lofty places will come down and ask us how on earth we do it. And when they finally do, we’ll be more than happy to tell them.

Ardith D. Cole is a teacher and literacy consultant living in East Amherst, N.Y. She is the author of Better Answers: Written Performance That Looks Good and Sounds Smart and the forthcoming Knee to Knee, Eye to Eye: Circling In on Comprehension.


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