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Wednesday, October 20,2010

What makes a great teacher?

Just follow around two local middle school teachers, who exemplify standards set forth by national education associations

by Gretchen Cochran
What makes a great teacher? These days, one has to wonder.

As the pressure builds for public schools to perform better, teachers can seem the scapegoat, perceived as over the hill, out of touch with current subject matter, disinterested and weary.


So it was heartening to catch an invigorated teacher, Linda Mondel, 47, telling Lansing Sunrise Rotarians about her Fulbright scholarship to India. The Lansing School District teacher was vibrant, dynamic and imbued with enthusiasm. She had spent five weeks touring schools throughout the Asian country and would now, with the 14 others from across the U.S., prepare a teaching unit for American schools.


This woman was no slug. But there is more.


Last year she was the first teacher in the Lansing School District to earn national certification for rigorous testing and screening similar to programs for doctors and accountants. Now she is the media specialist at Pattengill Middle School.


Her school home is unique. Pattengill is the newest public school building in the city by three decades and is on track to become part of Lansing’s International Baccalaureate, or IB, triptych including Post Oak Elementary, known for its Chinese immersion track, and Eastern High School. The IB schools are patterned after elite schools worldwide that educate ambassadors’ children.


But there’s a twist to this teacher’s story: Mondel is married to another Lansing teacher, Dennis McCarthy, and he’s as enthusiastic as she is, if not more so. The 58-year-old teaches social studies at Dwight Rich Middle School, recently dubbed a magnet school specializing in science, technology, engineering and math, commonly known as STEM.


He was a Fulbright scholar, too, having trekked to Nepal seven years ago to study water quality there. The two have fine tales to tell.


If ever there were candidates for great teacher awards, these two would be a good place to start.


Certainly personality and drive are important, said Sally Hudgins, 55, herself a Michigan Social Studies Teacher of the Year and former trainer of educators at Michigan State University. But while teaching is all about people, the craft is much more than making friends and telling stories, Hudgins said.


So is it about students’ test scores? Lansing’s middle schools aren’t stellar on that count. The annual statewide test of eighth graders in 2008-2009 showed Pattengill and Dwight Rich 20 and 17 points below the state student averages in reading and 28 points below in math.


But while standardized tests can be useful, the variables are too great to use just one device to measure a student’s learning, Hudgins said. And the same is true for measuring a teacher’s skill.


National organizations and foundations are coming to the same conclusion. Teach for America and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation concur, and are armed with reams of data to support their views.


Gates, in collaboration with the National Education Association and the United Federation of Teachers, has just launched the Measure of Effective Teaching Project, or MET, to develop ways of recognizing good teaching.


“Student test scores are not the way to go,” they say. With 3,000 teachers helping, they are designing ways to capture teachers on video for sharing good teaching techniques, using student and teacher surveys, observation tools and more. They plan to report their findings in winter 2011-2012.


Meanwhile, Teach for America, the nonprofit that recruits recent college graduates and professionals to teach two years in low-income areas, has gathered data for 20 years on 7,300 teachers, attempting to answer that question: What makes a great teacher?


The program has made headlines in Michigan. In May, 7 percent of the University of Michigan’s graduating class applied for Teach for America jobs. The state Department of Education and the Detroit Public Schools and charters struck a deal to accept applications from 100 Teach for America teachers.


Teach for America’s description of good-quality teachers was revealed in an Atlantic magazine special report in January. Many of the qualities described are revealed in Lansing’s Mondel and McCarthy.


One of the most important indicators of a great teacher is a history of perseverance, according to Teach for America. McCarthy personifies perseverance. He was born with cerebral palsy, which caused a permanently curled right hand but which slows him little. But it kept him off his high school football team and caused countless rejections for jobs he knew he could do. It took him 11 years to get his college degree while he figured out who he would be.


Sit in on one of his classes and the hand is barely noticeable. There is a palpable dynamism leaving no doubt of his career conviction.


Before the class starts, he’s out in the hall jawing with the boys about some football quarterback.


“Yeah, he’s great until someone sits on him,” McCarthy jokes. They all laugh, sharing a moment of boy humor.


But when class begins, he ratchets up his pace and performance.


“Give me five,” he shouts, left arm straight up with five fingers extended. Little by little, the students do the same, until 30 arms are extended, the room quiets and the young people are ready to learn.


“Kids must understand what is expected of them,” Hudgins, the trainer, said. “A well-executed routine is huge.”


Hudgins and Teach for America emphasize the importance of being prepared for the class. McCarthy’s plan for the morning was to teach about water quality and the global relationship of fresh water and salt water. By the end of the period, McCarthy had used several methods to teach the same concept.


Students don’t learn the same way, he said later.


Life satisfaction is another indicator of a good teacher, Teach for America says.


“I love these kids,” McCarthy said. Having taught in the district for 24 years, he makes $67,000 with benefits and a pension. He’ll quit when he feels he’s not making a difference.


Teach for America lists other characteristics, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation continues to work with teachers to learn how to quantify their skills. But performance is a two-way street. Gates and Scholastic surveyed 40,000 teachers on the factors that influence teacher retention. First on the list was supportive leadership, followed by time for teachers to collaborate to enhance their abilities to make lessons relevant to the students. Of those responding, 45 percent sought clean, safe buildings.

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