The great teachers of America: Where do they come from?

Bird Droppings April 12, 2021
The great teachers of America: Where do they come from?

After my ten-year doctorate leave, I started back to grad school and hopefully will finish up shortly. I am hopeful I can get into teaching education in college. Last year, I finished teaching and retired again from Alcovy high school, and I am already getting ready for something new. Last night when I got home, I was sitting mesmerized by night sounds with the kitchen door open. I was not in the mood for TV, and the sounds of darkness seemed to calm me after a seriously crazy week. Fortunately, this year I have only had to deal with routine involvement in the medical field until last week.

Last night off in the distance, a whippoorwill was calling to one near the house, and an occasional owl chimed in. It was an exceptional human-free intrusion on a quiet night since few people-influenced noises were present cool enough for AC to be quiet. I found myself thinking about the idea; I wonder if this is what it sounded like hundreds of years ago, just the various birds, crickets, frogs, and owls. A heavy dew was dripping from pine needles nearby, adding to the ambiance. I gave thanks, put up our dog, and headed to bed.

“The man who can make hard things easy is the educator.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Our former federal education program, NCLB, No Child Left Behind, was about lifting standards higher to make the United States number one in education. In the news daily, raising the bar in our educational process was suggested repeatedly even while we flounder in teaching online. We need more students to succeed to raise the standards and graduation rates, politicians say. Raising the bar educationally is the call word. The theory is that more students will succeed with higher standards for teachers and students. However, changing teaching methods, changing delivery, and even changing standards do not raise the ability or desire of a given student.

I couldn’t help but think of high jumping when raising the bar came up. Let us use a height of thirty-six inches, and tomorrow we will raise the bar to sixty inches, and you will succeed because we have a new way of telling you how to jump. We will use a megaphone now, and just as you jump, we will yell, “NOW JUMP.” As silly as this sounds, this little exercise akin to many educational programs is more about how not to succeed than before. Before raising the standard, we looked at why the students could not clear thirty-six inches. Was it the teaching method or the student’s physical ability, was it the shoes they are wearing, perhaps the runway’s surface to the jump pit is too soft or slippery, is there a wind that knocks the bar off as they approach.

I am very sarcastic in saying this; the mention of zip codes and test scores comes up in education. In today’s jargon, we need charter schools run by businesses who know what to do. So, in my naiveté, I wonder how a real estate mogul or software genius knows how to teach or seemingly increase knowledge and cognition over a teacher? Even more interesting is that many so-called experts have not succeeded in school and did not go through college. But they know what it takes to help poor kids or failing kids and how to raise the bar.
Basically, in any medium, if a person cannot jump thirty-six inches, moving to sixty inches will only assure failure. However, with practice and time, sixty inches is possible, but several factors have to be in place, and a key one is the desire and attitude of the person doing the jumping. The coach can be the greatest in the world, but if the student is content with failure, they will fail. A few years back, I watched the induction of John Madden into the NFL hall of fame. Madden has been one of my favorite commentators and coaches of all time.

“Coaches have to watch for what they don’t want to see and listen to what they don’t want to hear.” John Madden

“A good coach will make his players see what they can be rather than what they are.” Ara Parseghian

Coaching and teaching the terms are often synonymous in many ways. Several years ago, I raised and showed horses, and I had an outstanding Appaloosa gelding we affectionately called “Spot,” With me riding, Spot would be third or fourth, but we would always place. The funny thing was with my trainer onboard; Spot would win. I once asked about this phenomenon and was told the following.

“You put a ten horse, and by ten, I mean on a scale from 1-10 out with a one rider again on a scale of 1-10, and you have a five ride. However, you put a ten horse and ten rider out, and what are your odds” Earl Burchett, trainer, and judge of Appaloosa and Quarter horses

As I thought of my horse days quote, teaching and coaching are similar. A good teacher can get more out of a poorly working group of students, and a poor teacher will get something out of great students. For almost fifty years, I have asked how we distinguish the good teachers and or coaches from mediocre ones.

“Success is not forever, and failure isn’t fatal.” Don Shula

“The quality of a person’s life is directly proportional to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavor.” Vince Lombardi

Commitment is a keyword in selecting a great teacher and or coach and instilling that commitment in their students and players. Over the years, few coaches have been compared to the great Vince Lombardi, perhaps the greatest of all coaches.

“The price of success is hard work, dedication to the job at hand, and the determination that whether we win or lose, we have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand.” Vince Lombardi

“The dictionary is the only place where success comes before work. Hard work is the price we must pay for success. I think you can accomplish anything if you’re willing to pay the price.” Vince Lombardi

The ability to succeed is based on hard work, desire, and determination, and these are skills that great teachers and great coaches can instill in students and players.

“The only yardstick for success our society has is a champion. No one remembers anything else” John Madden

We often only see the champion and how many folks can remember who finished second or third in the national championship game. This may be a fault in our society that we settle for only the greatest, only the best. We live on a bell shape curve, and only a few will ever be the best, but it is in the trying and motivating students into trying that a teacher is to excel. It is so easy to succumb to the downside of that curve. Fifty percent will not succeed, and that mentality is often so powerful that so why should I try harder.

“One man practicing sportsmanship is far better than fifty preaching it.” Knute Rockne

A slight paraphrase of this great quote from the great Notre Dame Coach, “One teacher teaching is better than fifty saying they do.” This is what it is about; it is about genuinely teaching, motivating, and instilling determination and desire. It is about coaching and succeeding rather than failure. I hear every day, but I have a seventy percent I am passing that makes me upset that a child concedes to a seventy percent. Who gave out seventy percent passes, but we do it all the time. Can a thirty-six-inch jumper clear sixty inches?

Many years ago, a so-so-high jumper changed his form. He was also a physics student, and as such, he noticed jumpers were leading with their foot and the body following. He changed his form and led with his head and torso, and high jumping changed forever. Shortly after that, a world record and Olympic gold went to Dick Fossberry and the Fossberry flop, as it was called, is now the jumping style of all record-holding high jumpers. The funny thing is, today, all high jumpers lead with their head as a matter of physics getting the heaviest part over first and those muscles pushing it over last, which takes less effort, and the world record keeps going up. It is about ideas, determination, and commitment, and any goal can be accomplished.

Can this apply to teaching and learning? Most assuredly, we can, but we have to try, and we have to look for the means of accomplishing our goal. Federal standards call for research-based programs in educational settings, yet there are only a few. The field is narrow, and the difficulty is doing new research which requires guinea pigs, and too many teachers and programs do not want to fail. Teachers’ jobs are at stake, as well as administrators. So we, in trying to improve, may have boxed ourselves in by limiting improvement to a narrow window of research-proven programs, which in reality may or may not work. Have they researched n the same demographics as the students you teach or will be teaching is always a question? Has this program truly been tested on a large enough group? Is there room for improvement and progress within the program?

From personal experience, I have watched administrators then limit programs due to their limitations in imagination and creativity. One of my favorites is the notorious word wall. A teacher must have six-inch letters of vocabulary words on the wall, and that is it. So an electronic version that is available at home anywhere on a computer is not a word wall or a well-designed graphic as a lead-in for students working notebook in class is not a word wall, a set of personal flashcards is not a word wall, t-shirts with vocabulary, skywriting vocabulary words these do not word walls it has to be six-inch red letters not yellow or blue. Teaching is defeated by limits, impositions, and parameters imposed by less imaginative administrators and legislators.

“The man who can make hard things easy is the educator.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

I walked to my quiet Spot before posting today sitting at home. I sat in my quiet Spot, giving thanks for all that has transpired in the past week for each element; good and evil make everyone a better person. I shared with a dear friend yesterday how each person we interact with gives us a piece of our life’s puzzle and shared my business card, which is covered in puzzle pieces, and they smiled and said it makes sense now. The pieces are all falling in place. So I end my writing for today and get back to the grind of educating the masses and getting phone calls made and computer forms filled in but still, the hard part is keeping all in harm’s way on our minds and in our hearts and always giving thanks namaste.

My family and friends, I do not say this lightly,

Mitakuye Oyasin

(We are all related)


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