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TAKE THREE / Three Views of the Southland | SHAWN HUBLER

Teachers Who Make Magic

September 12, 1997|SHAWN HUBLER

The baby sitter's daughter scarcely slept the other night, the night before she was to head back to school. All night, she lay petrified on her little white bed, thinking of the teacher with the evil eye.

Actually it's a glass eye, and scarcely noticeable, but the teacher who has it is daunting and gruff. It was said around the playground that if you didn't do your homework, she would pluck out her eye and send it to spy on you.

The baby sitter's daughter had a checkered past regarding homework. What if she got this teacher? What if she were found out? She stared at her darkened window until her own eyes burned. She imagined that disembodied orb, seeing all.

Then, the next morning, she arrived at school to learn that--Yesss!--she was in another, friendlier teacher's class. Suddenly, school beckoned. Even the scary teacher didn't seem so bad. This year, she vows, will be her best yet.

A lot of people in and out of the public schools are hoping that this year will be the best yet. Delivered from recession, disaster and other apparitions of late, politicians have scrambled to treat us to that familiar standby, school reform.

Smaller class sizes? Name your price. Same-sex classrooms? Why not? Ideas that were dismissed only a few years ago suddenly reek with cachet.

Interesting, though, that as usual the talk is all of special programs and standardized tests and tough new rules. As usual, no one mentions the part of education that matters most: the relationship between the teachers and the kids.

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Have you ever read a book with a child on a day when you felt particularly happy and at peace? Ever notice how that child will then demand that you read the same book over and over, from then on, for months, every day, in the same way, in the same place, until you both are muttering it in your sleep?

Other books may have been better written. Other readings might have been more cleverly done. But nothing can come close to that magic of connection; with it, the child will learn anything.

There's a math teacher at the local high school. Her name is Shackleford, and, in the parlance, Shackleford "rocks." Kids love her classes, not because she's an easy A (she is not), but because she understands that it's all in the delivery. She can take a complicated concept and make it clear. This is harder than people realize. It requires an ability to connect, to put yourself second and your children first.

You probably remember your own Shacklefords, the teachers from whom, for some reason, you truly learned. Not the teenagers in adult clothing who turned to teaching because they "really identify with kids," or the bullies who liked the power and the chain of command. But the grown-ups who respected themselves and the job so much that, even under duress, they could make their material stick.

We all complain that there are too few teachers like that anymore. But we always stop short of taking a hard look at why.

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Linda Darling-Hammond, a Columbia University professor who heads the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, says some states have asked why. Connecticut, for instance, decided that the answer was to invest "a lot of money in getting the best-trained, best-paid teachers they could, and then to upgrade their standards for licensing and teacher education."

That was 10 years ago. Connecticut students now have risen to the nation's top ranks in math achievement, and are near the top in reading; there are surpluses of trained teachers even in inner-city schools.

Californians, meanwhile, have gambled on the hope that a strong economy might salve the revenue ravages of Proposition 13. It hasn't, and in the years since that money began to disappear, education reform here has mainly consisted of a quest for some silver bullet, some gimmick that would solve everything, preferably on the cheap.

For all our questing, from bilingual education to "schools within schools," Darling-Hammond says, the one thing that has gotten short shrift is the quality of the teacher--and of the teacher-student relationship. And never more so than with California's latest silver bullet, which aims to cut kindergarten through third-grade class sizes to 20 kids almost overnight.

Smaller classes are wonderful. But they're meaningless if the people in charge of them are untrained, or more interested in the lighter workload than in small children, or part of some shell game that involves three teachers shuttling among 60 kids. ("If you've ever tried to manage a children's birthday party," Darling-Hammond says wryly, "you understand.")

Indeed, research shows that when the connection falls short, the kids act up, the teacher panics and resorts to authoritarianism, and word spreads around the playground that there's yet another mean teacher in school. Someone who might keep you up nights, or even give you the evil eye, but from whom you probably won't learn a thing.

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Shawn Hubler's e-mail address is shawn.hubler@latimes.com

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