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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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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