I am in awe of great teachers.
My own children are lucky enough to have been taught by a few of those special people, and I have had some of them as colleagues. Against the most difficult odds, they accomplish the impossible day after day in the classroom, be it fourth grade or 12th grade, biology or Spanish.
With the current discussion about teacher preparation and what makes an effective educator, their qualities deserve close examination.
First of all, outstanding teachers constantly reflect on what they do. They thrive on being challenged by their colleagues; it's all part of the quest for new ideas. They positively love to "talk shop," mull over test results, discuss their students, rework their lesson plans. Quite frankly, they're a bit obsessive.
But it's exactly that obsession with subject matter and the craft of teaching that makes them so good. They always know exactly what they want to accomplish each day, they don't think good days are a matter of luck, and they never rest on their laurels. That kind of intensity can be exhausting to those around them, but who can argue with the results?
Highly successful teachers continue to teach well regardless of the circumstances. Neither damaged textbooks, broken desks, faulty air-conditioning nor an assembly schedule can keep them from their appointed rounds. It's not that they don't get frustrated by the absurdities of public education, but they never allow them to become an excuse for bad teaching.
Outside class, they may lobby as hard as anyone for smaller class size and better school conditions. But once they face the 35 kids in the classroom, each student will be held accountable: the one reading below grade level, the one limited in English, the one who just can't sit still. A great teacher lets no one off the hook.
An unwavering sense of purpose is another trait of great educators. They truly believe that what they teach is vital, fascinating and can change students' lives. In fact, their enthusiasm is legendary and often the topic of student conversations. But being charismatic is not enough. Such teachers realize that they must ultimately empower those young people before them, give them the skills and ability to use what they now know and to communicate what they have learned clearly and persuasively.
This is where the job really gets tough. It means explaining how knowledge can be used in the real world. It means taking the time to create effective exams that test what's important. It means carefully evaluating those exams so that they become meaningful. It means painstakingly reading and commenting on student writing. Those are lonely, unglamorous and unsung tasks, but they are also the foundation of real education.
Great teachers also respect and care about their students. That should be a given, but it isn't. There are a lot of very smart teachers we can all recall who poured knowledge into our heads as if we were empty vessels. There was little concern about who we were or what else was going on in our lives. There's a general understanding that we teach the "whole child," but exceptional teachers take it to heart. They understand that their classes, though important, are not the center of a young person's universe. They recognize that a parent's divorce may affect grades, that a report deadline may need to be adjusted because of a grandparent's funeral. Good teachers allow for students to get derailed sometimes but help them back on track with kindness and understanding.
Unfair as it may seem, there are no big rewards for these amazing teachers. Rather than basking in praise or collecting bonuses, they are frequently "tolerated" by administrators and often resented by their peers. Every day they must deal with teachers who are poorly prepared, seldom grade a paper, waste class time--yet make the same salary they do.
In such an environment, it's a miracle that they don't become mediocre themselves. But they don't. They remain true to an inner voice that will not allow them to compromise. And, though outstanding educators will never be compensated as they truly deserve, the beneficiaries of their diligence are out there--thousands of them.
Christine Baron is a high school English teacher in Orange County. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (714) 966-4550.