Teacher Can't Get No . . . Satisfaction

Though he tries, and he tries, Patch columnist says "I never know if I’m doing a good job. I never know if I’m making a difference."


(Editor's note: Patch columnist Jerry Heverly is an English teacher at San Leandro High.)

I recently repaired some sprinklers in the lawn of our local park. No big deal. I spent some years as a gardener and horticulture instructor so changing a few broken heads was not a big challenge.

I felt great about it though. When I turned on the system and watched the water splash over the grass I was filled with a sense of accomplishment.

Then it hit me. I remembered that I never have that feeling at work.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy my work—most of the time. What I’m talking about is the fact that as a teacher I never know if I’m doing a good job. I never know if I’m making a difference.

My students take tests. We are just finishing the California Standards Tests. But those tests tell me nothing about my teaching.

First of all there is the obvious fact that every one of my students has been instructed by at least 15 or 20 other teachers in the past eleven years. Who knows which of these folks—if any of us—was pivotal in the education of any one young person.

I can predict the test scores of any student in my high school. Tell me the family income. Count the number of books in the home of the kid. Does he or she live with both parents? With that information I bet I can forecast the CST scores of any San Leandro High School student.

That goes double for the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT’s).

Test scores reveal the home life of my students. They do not tell me anything about my teaching ability.

Occasionally I get thank you notes (or apologies) from students at the end of a school year. I love getting them. They make me cry sometimes.

My favorite, I think, came from a girl who took a typing class from me. For four months she refused to touch type. I kept failing her. Finally in the last two weeks she began typing without looking at the keys. She thanked me for, essentially, being so stubborn. (She passed).

But virtually all the notes I get compliment me for things unrelated to learning.  I was ‘helpful’ or ‘good-hearted’.

One parent thanked me for attending her daughter’s soccer games. None had anything to do with the act of improving ones mind, of grasping iambic pentameter or discovering why George killed Lennie in Of Mice and Men.

Most of my students have no idea why I teach the way I do. A couple years ago I tried to explain the theories behind my queer teaching methods to one of my honors classes. It was a bit like the air conditioning guy explaining Boyle’s Law to you as he fixed your furnace. They thought I was nuts.

I’ve had many jobs in my life: janitor, gardener, salesman, purchasing agent.

Most of the time when I finished a day’s work I could look at a clean floor or a sales goal achieved, and feel that I made a difference.

I’m convinced that one of the reasons why I now go home so discouraged is that I have no real idea whether I am doing a good job.

(You can read more columns like this in the archives of Strictly Secondary.)

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Elisabeth Huffmaster May 24, 2012 at 07:44 PM
Every column needs a heckler, it keeps things interesting. Thank you Mr. Heverly for pointing out this feeling! This is one appealing aspect of Waldorf: a teacher is with the children up to 8 years in a row. One can truly develop relationships and see development over time. Testing does reflect circular teaching, layers of information repeated and reinforced with new information in any good school system. When there is little money for professional collaboration within a school system it is near impossible to have vertical accountability from K to grade 6; middle and high school teachers rarely talk to each other; they are just too overwhelmed with their 100+ students. Representatives communicate between the campuses and levels of children. Public school teachers tend to get a new set of students yearly, a new set of personalities, physical and mental abilities, socio-economic realities and family histories. And let's not forget current living situations which may vary wildly for some students through no fault of their own: messy guardian relationships, unemployment, under employment, OVER employment render fragile study environments at home. Testing is not a hard science. A public day school makes pure examination of teaching effectiveness complex.
David May 24, 2012 at 08:42 PM
Rousseau was ever a charlatan and a fraud. Our "current debate" or the issue posed by the author of this post is whether he can ever recognize a kind of psychological reward or satisfaction for teaching, given the difficulties in evaluating the products of his efforts (his pupils). Perhaps in prior columns the value of a college degree was debated. However, if you're wanting to open that up for debate now, by all means.
Elisabeth Huffmaster May 24, 2012 at 08:44 PM
Actually, TRUE universal public education is about as old as IDEA [http://idea.ed.gov/]. If you ever saw the movie Radio, this topic is addressed. Old as public education in this country is [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_education_in_the_United_States], grammar school has not been universally available to the population until 1767 for females, the 1870s for people of color and the 1970s for people of mixed abilities. Our highest available public grade was grade 8 until our emerging industrial era required more than agricultural knowledge of most of the population in the early 1900s. A lot of people are still not convinced that high school is required, look at the drop out rate. But that is not the current conversation. The current debate is whether college is necessary to break out of the working class, statistically. Do most people have any choice in how they acquire an early education? Here those professing an unschooling philosophy are gaining footing. Without curiosity and interest, education falls flat. But unschooling is only available to the truant and the informed homeschooling family. The modern day Emile is often the child of well-educated parents, but if you ever do read Rousseau's treatise on education, be aware that he fathered 5 children with a seamstress who depended on him for the support of an extended family and convinced her to give them up to a foundling hospital. Theory and practice are entirely different parts of some people's lives.
Rob Rich May 25, 2012 at 01:11 PM
Mr. Haverly's willingness to open up and make himself vulnerable in the Patch, a forum that tends to eat its own, is commendable. I have no idea how good of a teacher he his, but if his classroom is anything like his writing, his kids get to witness honesty and bravery on a regular basis. That is a gift.
David May 25, 2012 at 01:57 PM
That's nice. But if you actually care about education, it'd be better if his kids get to "witness" good teaching, as defined by learning and understanding the subject matter at hand. Again, my old calculus teacher (the best teacher I ever had) was nobody's "friend" (no student's that is, and a life long bachelor in fact, quite possibly due to his acerbic personality), he was an excellent teacher, adored for that by decades of his students. I don't know if iMr. Haverly's a good teacher either (wouldn't it be nice to have some teacher evaluations since we're paying his salary & benefits). What I do know is that if you question the quality of job you're doing, the question often answers itself. And usually negatively.
Leah Hall May 25, 2012 at 03:42 PM
I'm a big fan of Jerry Haverly's writing. In a world of power point slides, political ads & flyers, and amateur pundits, it's more than refreshing to read about one teacher's unvarnished story about his life's work. May we receive 1000 accounts from many teachers and school principals. Perhaps only then will we come to a durable understanding in our community and a vibrant path forward.
David May 25, 2012 at 04:44 PM
"Life's work"? he's repeatedly pointed to all the other jobs he's had and that he started teaching a bit later in life. In a world filled with easily distracted clowns, it would be more than refreshing to see commentary written by people who actually read the subject matter being commented on.
Leah Hall May 25, 2012 at 05:08 PM
Mind flash: On average, American's, ages 18-44 between 1978 and 2008 held 11 jobs. Our life's work includes many hats. Some of us wear ridiculously large shoes as well.
Leah Hall May 25, 2012 at 05:14 PM
While others strut around in skinny jeans.... Fashion culprit: Tight jeans Health risk: Squeezing into tight pants (or cinching belts too tight) can cause nerve compression, numbness and digestive issues. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, internist Dr. Octavio Bessa of Stamford, Conn., coined the term tight-pants syndrome in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 1993, after seeing many patients with abdominal discomfort, distension and heartburn due to ill-fitting clothes. According to Bessa’s report, “the diagnosis can be made easily in the office by comparing the size of the trousers with the abdominal girth. There is usually a discrepancy of 7.5 centimeters or more.” Dangers lurking in our closets-- http://healthland.time.com/2012/02/23/skinny-jeans-and-high-heels-what-health-dangers-lurk-in-your-closet/
Marga Lacabe May 25, 2012 at 07:32 PM
I think we tend to remember most fondly those teachers who were the hardest on us - whether or not they were good teachers. I think what those teachers give us is both a sense of accomplishment ( we survived them!) and of communion (we all went through that hell!). When I visit the boards of my old elementary school it's amazing how much of the talk of teachers is on one particular one, who was there for fifty years it would seem :-) Similarly, one of my favorite professor in law school was this incredibly old, incredibly tiny, arrogant as hell (and with reason) man who treated all of us students as complete idiots. Actually, he called us idiots. But he didn't play favorites, he held us all in contempt, so it was easy to like him. But were they good teachers? Maybe, they challenged us and that's always good, but I can't really say they were the *best* teachers. Indeed, if I have to think about the best teacher I've ever had it was actually my Civil Procedure professor in law school. He was neither particularly mean, not particularly nice. He certainly didn't fraternize with students. But he'd been an incredibly successful trial lawyer and courtroom skills translate beautifully into the classroom.
Mike May 25, 2012 at 07:42 PM
Suzanne watch Blackboard Jungle, a movie set in the 1950's if you think teachers were more respected 30-40 years ago or longer, heck wantch To Sir With Love, Teaching has always been a challenging position
Elisabeth Huffmaster May 25, 2012 at 09:52 PM
I agree with Rob. I was looking at this column sequence as a whole. I took the idea of whether college should be the primary focus for all teens as being part of not feeling satisfaction as a teacher. At this point I want to know if there is any practical experience behind David's comments. I have you tagged in my mind as a male who has never been the primary caregiver to a child, children or the elderly, nor a credentialed teacher. Correct me. Maybe you do facilitate group dynamics and bringing multiple personalities to a common understanding in a short period of time on a regular basis. Have you ever been a primary or even a secondary care-giver? Have you ever been a public or even a private school teacher; instructed apprentices (also very important)? What ages and stages? Of course we can never know the truth through an online column's responses, but what experience beside reading and being a student do you claim to have David? I thought I knew a LOT about teaching from being a student and a caregiver. Then I started teaching public school, then privately, then I started parenting. Then things got interesting. Theory versus practice can be the most messy once you hit these teaching stages. Try homeschooling. Try parent-participation schooling. There are many days when it is hard to tabulate your successes in many fields. Parenting and teaching are just two of them. I would love to read your work evaluations too at this point, David.
David May 26, 2012 at 12:24 AM
Elizabth, not like it matters, but since you asked I have 3 kids. I've taught college-level courses to, well, college-age students. My evaluations were modestly above average, not great, not terrible, with high marks on knowing the subject matter and low marks on "personality" which I know will come as a huge surprise (I made a student cry by giving her a B+, thereby dashing her dreams of being a neurologist somehow). I never claimed I was a great teacher, nor has the author here. It was obvious to me I would never *be* a great teacher, and I never pursued it. You have your notions of me. I'm sure they're mostly wrong (as evidenced by your assumption that I have no dependents), but let me dispel a few more. 1) I have nothing against the author personally. 2) I reject the notion that there is no reasonably sound way to evaluate the quality of instruction provided by teachers. 3) I posited the idea that if he has no feedback or understanding of whether or not he is a good teacher, he could very well not be a "good" teacher. My experience has been that "good" teachers received such feedback from students. He could be merely "average." Perhaps below average. We don't know, I don't know, and that lack of knowledge is a problem, as we pay his salary and expect certain outcomes from his efforts. You agree with Rob that he's "brave." To me that's a non-sequitur, what matters is his job performance for the purpose of answering his question--is he a good teacher?
Rob Rich May 26, 2012 at 12:50 AM
I couldn't disagree more with the statement "if you question the quality of job you're doing, the question often answers itself. And usually negatively." There is a thin line between confidence and hubris. Many of the highest performers I know are the hardest on themselves, constantly questioning the quality of their work and never satisfied regardless. "I have offended God and mankind because my work didn't reach the quality it should have." da Vinci http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/l/leonardo_da_vinci.html#vXcLue3q1TLtB1h2.99
Leah Hall May 26, 2012 at 01:11 AM
My experience is that there is most often an inverse relationship between hubris and performance (in that people with hubris are afraid of showing what they don't know, so they peak and then get stuck in a holding pattern, resorting to behaviors and attitudes that serve to "cover up" their weaknesses rather than deal with them in a positive way). The teachers and colleagues I admire the most are the ones that are super smart, accomplished, helpful to others and humble. We all have our bad days and can be real pains in the butts, but that should be the exception and not the game plan. David and I have talked about this a lot in the past, so I won't bore myself or others by getting into it again. Those who might be interested can check out "Mindset" by author and education researcher, Carol Dweck. http://mindsetonline.com/abouttheauthor/index.html
David May 26, 2012 at 01:21 AM
To be more clear. The author stated to the effect he receives no feedback as to whether or not he's doing a good job and that he has no feeling of accomplishment as a teacher. It's been my experience that good teachers *do* receive such feedback from their students.
Leah Hall May 26, 2012 at 01:24 AM
David, that's potentially an unvarnished and authentic personal story that Patch readers would be interested in reading about.
David May 26, 2012 at 01:58 AM
Leah, you successfully eliminated any desire for me to write another blog post.
Leah Hall May 26, 2012 at 03:54 AM
http://www.sadtrombone.com/ My heart bleeds for you. Not.
David May 26, 2012 at 04:52 AM
Such bullying is why you're hated, Leah.
Paul Vargas May 26, 2012 at 06:45 AM
David, there was a History teacher at SL from the 1960s to the early 90's that was the spitting image of Leah. No lie. Thought and acted just like her.
Paul Vargas May 26, 2012 at 03:30 PM
Well hindsight is 20/20 so looking back with a more clear and objective view of John Muir and SL I've got to say that Butler and McCulloch, my two shop teachers at John Muir, and Smith were excellent teachers. They taught us skills that we've been using and will continue to use all our lives. My English teachers, I forget most of their names from 7-12, but I had Mrs. Duffy and Roxanne Ansolabehere (sp?) they did a good job in expanding my vocabulary and verbal articulation. Bob Breedlove for Economics? OK, I thought Breedlove was a personable guy, had great stories, a keen real estate investor, but he needed to teach what he practiced in real life. I still remember in the 9th grade at Muir when he took an old toilet seat, sanded it down, painted it, wrote "HALL PASS" on it and we had to use it for our hall pass. Most of us thought it was funny but some party pooper, (pun) complained to the Superintendent and Breedlove had to take it away.
Leah Hall May 26, 2012 at 03:51 PM
Intriguing, David. A personal story I had a band teacher in my lack luster public middle school that stands out as one of the most influencial educators in my young academic career. His name was Mr. McKinnley and I was in his class the first year he taught at our school as a young instructor. I had never had a teacher that was so passionate and energetic about what he taught. He connected with us and our band with venues throughout the city. He gave parents the opportunity to pay for private lessons outside of school at a very modest price. These took place in his home. Through his belief in students like me and his accomplished teaching, I was awarded first chair in a city wide honors orchestra. This was the highest honor I had ever received up until that time. Unsuprisingly, Mr. McKinley departed the next year. He had taken a more prestigious position at a high school elsewhere. A very mediocre teacher took his place. This man couldn't manage our class. He was doing more punitive diciplining than instruction and I promptly lost all interest in being in the band. I dropped the class and quit band for good. All these years later I still think about that experience and how it shaped me. It would have been great to have kept on learning music, but more than that I think it is important that I clearly understood what a difference an exceptional instructor can make in a young person's life. That is what I carry with me.
David May 26, 2012 at 04:32 PM
To the point of the author, did either of you let the "good" teachers know? As I stated, I did give feedback to the many good teachers I had the fortune of having at my high school. The not so good ones, I never gave feedback to after our classes were completed.
Paul Vargas May 26, 2012 at 04:35 PM
Yeah, I let the Butler and McColluch know by not mouthing off in class. lol Now, the English teachers??? I'll keep quiet about my classroom behavior. =)
Marga Lacabe May 26, 2012 at 05:54 PM
David, I think you are unusual on this. I can't remember ever telling a teacher I thought they were good teachers. Now, I say so to my daughter's teachers (I absolutely LOVE Ms. Valdivia at Rosevelt, she is the epithomy of good teaching and caring about her students. Some of them are behind, and as things stand she doesn't have a job at the district next year, BUT she is going to be teaching summer school without pay, of her own initiative. And I've told her so. But I've never said the same to my actual teachers. Last night I was trying to remember the name of that civil procedure professor so I could e-mail him and let him know, but it escapes me.
Paul Vargas May 26, 2012 at 06:10 PM
What's the use of going back to compliment a teacher? They don't remember who was in their class 3 years ago, yet alone 30 years ago. Maybe if the kids old man owned a rock yard or something and the teacher still goes in there to buy building materials he'll remember him, but other than that the teachers don't remember nor care.
Leah Hall May 26, 2012 at 07:38 PM
Those types of student thank you's are certainly appreciated, when received. However, I think it is a bit off the mark. Feedback comes in many forms. After reading "Waiting for Superman," my guess is that some of the most effective educator feedback is fostered in the principal/teacher and parent/school relationships. For example, if the principal at my middle school had had a clue, he would have might never have hired that crappy replacement band teacher (who was nearing retirement) or done more to support and retain the exceptional teacher who was recruited elsewhere. The parents should have raised hell? They should have done everything to show their appreciation for the first teacher? That type of feedback would have made a lasting impression on the school community, even if it resulted in a bad performance review instead of an actual firing or retention. This is an extreme example, ideally the principal is on top of things and keeps a strong team of educators going strong.
David May 26, 2012 at 09:05 PM
Paul, I can think of 2 reasons. First, it's a nice gesture to a good teacher. Second, it's good to encourage competence. I think teachers remember their students at least for a few years after the classes. After 30 years, of course, the memories would dim. Yes, parents should also compliment good teachers and good teaching when they see it with their kids. Marga, as I stated, I might be unusual or my high school might be unusual (although I don't see how, as it was a solidly middle-class, "etnik" as they say), but I know I was far from the only student who complimented the top teachers after the semester/year/graduation.
Elisabeth Huffmaster May 28, 2012 at 12:05 AM
Pass around a yearbook to your students. Feedback is sweet to read but "I learned a lot," is not statistically-based. I liked "I remember...I chose the project and did it on caffeine and the affect it had on chick embryos!!!! I stayed after class many times...It wasn't the most successful experiment, however, it was the first one I did. Maybe if I had done it a second time I would have done a better job...[etc.]" That is a gratifying anecdote. But match that with the year I introduced AP Biology to SLHS, the last year I taught before staying home with children. My class had a 60% passing rate on the test. Mr. Doan took over for me and has a far better passing rate. International Baccalaureate has evolving assessment methods starting in primary school based on teaching research. Perhaps the IB system and stats might be more gratifying and satisfying to Mr. Heverly. But nothing beats meeting your students successfully navigating the work world and family life. They don't always remember your name either. After having over 1000 students and athletes in only 5 years, I am proud when I can remember their names. Facebook helps. The good teacher of children is competent with the material, adroit at incorporating many ways of learning and assessing, and engaged in their student's lives. Check out Mr. Doan's classroom during lunchtime: FULL of students. His anecdotes probably say things like, "thanks for listening to me," intermingled with lots of jokes.


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