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Analyzing the Art of Excellence

October 07, 1998|RICHARD LEE COLVIN

You don't hear much about good teaching.

For the media, good teaching, like good news, usually falls into that black hole called non-news. It's like the sun coming up. It's what's supposed to happen.

But perhaps a bigger reason good teaching doesn't get much attention is that it's hard to define. It varies according to subject and the age and skills of the students.

It's like art, in a way. You know it when you see it--or feel it. Good teachers' classrooms are electric, alive. Those going through the motions have classrooms that are emotionally flat and airless.

"There's a lot of magic in teaching," said Cathy Armstrong, a former high school English teacher now with the Los Angeles Educational Partnership, a professional development group. "But there's too much mystery."

The magic Armstrong refers to can't be found in a teacher's manual. Yet, effective teachers aren't just born, they're made.

The characteristics of effective teachers were the topic of discussion when about 35 Los Angeles Unified School District teachers met on a recent Saturday morning at a Van Nuys hotel. Each assists colleagues by, for example, demonstrating lessons or acting as a mentor.

Armstrong led off the discussion, quoting her 5-year-old grandson. He told her that his teachers "made things pop into my mind" by asking open-ended questions.

James M. Jackson, a fifth-grade teacher at Stoner Avenue School in Culver City, said good teachers are sensitive to their students and "are able to switch midstream" if a lesson is missing the mark.

Barry Shapiro, a nationally recognized science teacher at Los Angeles Unified's Zoo Magnet School, said that compelling lessons will avert most discipline problems. His standard? "I always ask myself, 'Would I like to be in my class?' "

Carol Locket, a Venice High math teacher, said knowing the names of your students is important--even if you have 200 a day.

Most important, said Linda Hoffman, a 30-year-veteran science teacher at Palms Middle School, is "that excitement and enjoyment" of teaching.

Seeking New Ways to Find and Reward Good Teaching

Judy Johnson, another former teacher now with the Educational Partnership, said the public often equates good teaching with high test scores. But that's misleading, she said, because students' test scores are influenced by family income as well as by teachers.

Johnson is trying to come up with better measures than test scores to identify outstanding teachers and schools as she looks to dispense $100,000 a year in awards--fruit of a grant from the Ahmanson Foundation.

Award programs for teachers are abound. The Milken Family Foundation hands out $25,000 to about 150 teachers nationally a each year. The Los Angeles County office of education recently forwarded the names of a dozen local teachers to the state "Teacher of the Year" competition.

Beyond recognition, Johnson said, "we're trying to make it transparent to the public and teachers what high quality teaching and what real, substantial student achievement looks like."

"It's a lot more complex" than the public realizes, she said. "It takes a lot of craft and time."

Anxious Applicants Await Decision on Certification

The National Board of Professional Teaching Standards has defined expert teaching and set up a process by which teachers can become board-certified.

But enthusiasm for certification has only taken off in the last year in California--partly because the Los Angeles Unified School District offered 15% raises to those who achieved that distinction. Last year, the district had only a single certified teacher. Now, 79 have submitted their applications. They will find out Nov. 1 if they qualified.

Some of those awaiting word gathered at the Grace Simons Lodge in Elysian Park last week to celebrate their effort.

Teachers said they were confident of their skills before seeking certification. But they said the process--which involves videotaping and writing essays analyzing everything they do--was unnerving. Now an anonymous national panel is examining their submissions.

"This is me for everybody to see," said Ann Ifekwunique, who teaches at Carthay Center School. "What if it is not good enough? The waiting is terrible."

Ismael Rosario, a brawny, tough-talking math teacher at Roosevelt High School who grew up in the South Bronx, said he pursued board certification for a simple reason. "I've always wanted to know what kind of teacher I am," he said.

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