(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.)