Volunteers Get Taste of Ingredients to Be an Effective Teacher

By Bess Keller — December 13, 2005 6 min read
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David S. Berezin, a 40-year-old certified public accountant, can point to some notable successes from his two hours as a high school teacher here. Students pricked up their ears when a question about his craziest work-related moment led him to spin operatic tales of fortunes sheltered by savvy financial professionals such as himself. Even the girl who had been dozing responded thoughtfully to a case study Mr. Berezin devised just for their business and management class at Coral Gables Senior High School.

Christopher Castro, a 2nd grader at Bob Graham Education Center, waits to be called on by bankers who taught a class as part of the Great American Teach-a-Thon in Miami-Dade County, Fla.

But the Nov. 29 experience in the suburban Coral Gables community didn’t leave Mr. Berezin impressed with his skill. And that was the point of the Great American Teach-a-Thon, an event in the school district here that its organizers hope will make the public more aware of what it takes to have effective teachers.

“Yeah, I may be a natural,” Mr. Berezin said. “But teaching requires more than that; it’s more than being comfortable in front of a crowd.”

The brainchild of Linda Lecht, the president of the local Education Fund, an independent organization that supports the public schools in the 362,000-student Miami-Dade County, Fla., district, the teach-a-thon paired educators with business people and professionals in a novel way.

The teachers helped their community “champions”—as they were dubbed—to prepare and give a lesson to their students. The champions used their time at school as the basis for fund-raising among family, friends, and associates.

That combination and the explicit focus on teacher quality made the event a first, said Howie Schaffer, a spokesman for the Public Education Network, a Washington-based organization that brings together some 90 local education funds.

The money raised, about $10,000 so far, is set to be divided between the participating teachers for use in their classrooms and the Miami fund, which raises about $4 million a year and runs some dozen projects.

Yet from the start, the coin of the project was more understanding than money—and for good reason, Mr. Schaffer said. “Efforts for teacher quality won’t be successful unless we make the community smarter about it,” he said. “That makes all the difference in sustaining the momentum.”

Three R’s

The teach-a-thon lessons gave volunteers a chance to say to everyone they approached for money, “Did you know this is really hard to do?” said Gary M. Pappas, a lawyer who heads the local group’s board and taught a lesson himself.

The groundwork for that insight was laid in three sessions that Mr. Pappas and the other volunteers signed on for. A kickoff party included a test of their knowledge of the teaching profession.

Barnett Berry, the head of the Center for Teaching Quality, a research and advocacy group in Chapel Hill, N.C., devised the quiz and told the group that differences in teacher quality best explain student-achievement gaps.

At subsequent work sessions, experts gave advice on fund raising and master teachers taught the champions the rudiments of lesson planning. The teacher-quality message was encapsulated in three R’s: retain new teachers with support; renew with professional development; and reward with recognition.

Teacher-champion Alicia Gonzalez shows 1st graders at Bob Graham Education Center how to count money. The banker volunteered to teach a lesson at the Great American Teach-a-Thon in Miami-Dade.

Washington Mutual bank, which supports teaching projects nationwide, underwrote the venture with $100,000. The Seattle-based company also promoted the event with posters, coin canisters, and brochures in its branches. And almost half the 120 people who eventually volunteered as champions—several dozen more volunteers dropped out because of date changes forced by Hurricane Wilma—were Washington Mutual employees.

To get ready for his class, Mr. Berezin, like the other volunteers, sought advice from the teacher with whom he had been paired. He had a long talk with Lucia Benchetrit, who teaches the advanced business class at Coral Gables High. Mr. Berezin learned that he would be facing some of the brightest students in the school, those enrolled in the demanding International Baccalaureate program. For a month, he said, he ruminated over his lesson plan.

On the day of the event, Mr. Berezin stood dark-suited and apparently relaxed at the front of the classroom, baring his soul about the rewards—monetary and otherwise—of working in the tax department of the Miami firm of Rachlin Cohen & Holtz.

“So you find loopholes?” a student concluded.

“I find legal ways,” Mr. Berezin shot back cheerfully, “to save [my clients] millions.”

The product of public schools himself, the accountant said he didn’t hesitate when his firm’s marketing department broadcast a call for teach-a-thon volunteers. He’s worried about a decline in public education, especially as the stepfather of two teenagers, one of whom has struggled in school.

“I felt like what I did today was so hard,” he said following his two-hour stint, “if I had my way, there’d be very high standards to do it.” Higher pay, too, to attract more smart young people. In fact, he confided, he might have chosen to teach but for the money.

Lawyers in Pre-K

Another volunteer, Barbara E. Ruiz-Gonzalez, could go Mr. Berezin one better. She trained as a teacher—and then went to law school instead.

What put her off some 15 years ago, she explained, was “the bureaucracy, the lack of training. You get thrown in there, usually in an inner-city school, and you need some kind of training.”

Ms. Ruiz-Gonzalez and Mark J. Neuberger, both of the law firm Buchanan Ingersoll, had ventured into the prekindergarten classroom of Peggy Gordon at Biscayne Gardens Elementary School, which serves a mainly working-class neighborhood north of downtown Miami. Ms. Ruiz-Gonzalez perched on 4-inch-high black sandals. Ms. Gordon wore loafers. The 18 bobbing students, including 12 who speak Spanish or Creole at home, sang a spirited song in English welcoming their visitors.

After the preliminaries, Mr. Neuberger sat on a tiny chair and read aloud a picture book about animals hibernating that Ms. Ruiz-Gonzalez had found online..

The follow-up discussion threatened almost immediately to go off track when one of the children mentioned that his dog sleeps, setting off a string of dog observations from the 4- and 5-year-olds.

But then, Ms. Ruiz-Gonzalez, a mother of two, told the children they were going to be making a hibernating place for animals. With the help of the other adults, the children moved quietly to tables arrayed with shoe boxes, twigs, leaves, and pine needles.

“It’s the animal’s safe place, like our safe place here, all cushy,” explained Ms. Gordon, 57, drawing out the U in “cushy” for its expressive effect.

Awed by Craft

It was just such details of craft that awed Nerissa Street as she observed the work of teachers Tanisha Cunningham and Tiffany Bart in their 3rd grade classroom at the Bob Graham Education Center set amid the large, red-tile-roofed houses of the suburban Miami Lakes neighborhood.

The community liaison for the James B. Pirtle Construction Co., with headquarters in Davie, Fla., Ms. Street, like Mr. Berezin, the accountant, volunteered for the teach-a-thon in part because she is concerned about the direction of public education. She fears that standardized testing and a sit-on-the-kids mentality are squeezing out critical thinking and invention.

But time in the classroom started the 31-year-old Ms. Street thinking about the ways that a skilled teacher balances orderliness and creativity.

When the attention of one group began to stray from her lesson requiring pupils to match up school subjects and possible careers, she had barely signaled for help when Ms. Bart stepped in with a quick, “I like the way William is paying attention,” which settled the group down again. “Their use of groups is ingenious,” Ms. Street marveled.

She was unable to persuade anyone else in her company to join the teach-a-thon, though the company, one of about 25 that participated, donated $1,500. Next year, she said, it will be different. “There’s no question in my mind,” agreed Mr. Pappas, the Education Fund’s chairman. “We can make this a huge thing.”


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