Dickinson College Homepage Dickinson Magazine This issue of the Dickinson Magazine was mailed on Monday, April 4, 2005
From This Issue
Volume 82 • Number 4
Spring 2005

The Power of Teaching
The relationship between student and teacher is still paramount for success
By Tim Potts ’71
Socrates and Plato.
Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller.
Haydn and Beethoven.
Jen and Hannah.

Learning happens in the relationship between teachers and students. If we want to improve public education, we should strengthen that relationship in every way that makes a difference in learning. Absent that, other attempts at increasing student achievement are not likely to succeed.

Before going further, it’s worth noting that we should not define “teacher” as only a professional pedagogue. As a child, I knew that most adults in the community were teachers to me, even the clerks at stores where I bought bubble gum and marbles. They would look me in the eye and patiently count the change into my hand. They demonstrated that it was important to learn money math—and they wanted me to learn it.

I don’t see many interactions like that today, which makes the job of public schools more difficult. Pennsylvania’s elementary students are required to attend 900 hours of instruction each year. This represents just 15 percent of a child’s waking hours in a year, and it is folly to expect classroom teachers to impart 100 percent of what a child needs to learn in 15 percent of a child’s time. All adults—pre-eminently but not solely parents—have to accept some responsibilities as teachers. It’s simple math, and adults-as-teachers of all children too often are a missing factor.

“Reforms” that do not focus on the relationship between teachers and students, or that are disrespectful of that relationship, do not succeed. In Pennsylvania, charter schools are a sad example.

Pennsylvania has 109 charter schools that enroll 42,000 students. If they constituted their own district, charter schools would be the second largest school district in Pennsylvania, behind only Philadelphia. And if that were the case, they would have ranked 490th in reading and 494th in math achievement out of 502 districts last year.

Contributing to this dismal record is a state law that requires only 75 percent of teachers in charter schools to hold teaching certificates. In practice, the average has been significantly below 75 percent. Add to this a charter-school teaching corps that averages several fewer years of experience with high turnover rates, and it’s tempting to conclude that failure becomes not just predictable but unavoidable.

Another “reform” that fails to put the teacher-student relationship at the core of improving public schools is “choice”—the romantic idea that simply allowing parents to choose the charter or other schools their children attend will automatically produce better results.

While the market force that underlies choice may eventually contribute to better public schools, it will do so only if parental choices are informed choices based on what matters in teaching and learning. Yet most advocates of choice oppose universal accountability systems that would permit parents to compare all schools—public, private, charter, religious—on the basis of a common set of performance standards such as the quality of teaching. Until that happens, choice will remain little more than an ideological sound bite, not a strategy for real improvement.

So how can public education improve the relationship between teachers and students? There are several ways, ranging from small classes to better management of disruptive students to team teaching.

More specifically, states and schools can encourage teachers to achieve certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Some states provide grants to help teachers obtain national certification. Private foundations, such as Pittsburgh’s Grable Foundation, also are committing significant sums to help schools promote national certification among their teachers.

Short of national certification, most states insist on more and better continuing education for teachers in both content and pedagogy. Fortunately, technology is making such demands perfectly reasonable. Today the Internet can deliver interactive, research-based and classroom-applied professional development to all teachers regardless of where or what they teach and at minimal cost.

We can celebrate and strengthen teaching, or we can denigrate and weaken it. But its fundamental value remains because we all remember turning points when an excellent teacher made all the difference to us.

Jen and Hannah? This teacher and student are not famous, but they are equally important for being closer to home.

Jen is Jennifer Blyth, associate professor of music and chair of Dickinson’s music department. Hannah is a piano student and the daughter of some family friends. When the two met recently, Jen managed to reach Hannah in ways that inspired her to a new love of music and piano when Hannah was discouraged and disinterested. Hannah’s parents now wonder at her spending so much time at the piano.

Such is the power of great teaching. If we want great public schools, we should start there.

A consultant in education policy, politics and communication, Tim Potts ’71 was the director of the Pennsylvania School Reform Network from 1997 until late 2004. Potts, who majored in English, serves on the communications committee of Dickinson’s Alumni Council.


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