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Saturday, September 28, 2013
I was a total mess in high school. My parents went through a very nasty divorce that took multiple years to resolve. My mom was constantly in and out of various mental institutions. I lived with my father and, although he did the best he could, his alcoholism combined with my personality led to constant conflict.
I never talked to anyone at school about it. I was embarrassed, angry and felt, ultimately, alone. Needless to say, I wasn’t the best student.
However, at the start of my junior year, my life took a different course. I had Mrs. Northway for U.S. History. She also was our school’s theater director. One day, early in the school year, Mrs. Northway pulled me aside and said, “Mark, have you thought about trying out for the play?” I shook my head. She then said something that shocked me: “Well, you should, because I think you would be great onstage.”
I tried out. I got a small part in the play, but more importantly, I found someone who believed in me.
It’s funny, I don’t remember Mrs. Northway counseling me about my home life. I’m not sure she knew that Christmas was spent visiting my heavily medicated mother at a mental facility or that my father often accused me of doing drugs after school because he didn’t believe I was staying late for play rehearsals.
What I do remember is that Mrs. Northway always had a smile, often a hug, encouraged me and demanded my best both in class and on the stage. When I was upset and ready to quit theater because I didn’t get a part in the spring play, she approached me and said, “I need you as a stagehand.” I spent many Saturdays with a hammer and a paint brush.
Eventually, I got a lead role my senior year, and my father even came to see it. He was so impressed, he came back another night. My grades improved dramatically, and after a stint in the Air Force, I attended the University of Massachusetts.
Mrs. Northway is why I decided to became a history teacher. More importantly, I wanted to be a great teacher like her. Unfortunately, I found my education program lacked any conversation about what great teachers did.
This is both common and disturbing. New teachers are notoriously ill prepared for the classroom, and that is the main factor why 50 percent of teachers quit within the first five years.
Desperate, I started researching on my own. I stumbled on a book titled “Jaime Escalante: The Best Teacher in America.” Escalante taught mathematics to poor, mostly Latino, students in East Los Angeles and got amazing results. He was demanding and assessed his students daily. When students didn’t master a topic, he retaught it or remediated during lunch or before and after school.
Escalante was also funny, started class with loud rock music and sometimes did purposefully outrageous things to grab students’ attention. His students thought he might be crazy. Other teachers were convinced.
He preached hard work and the critical value of math. His classroom was an unrelenting beehive of activity.
What I learned from Escalante was that a great teacher has the ability to make students want to learn. Teaching isn’t a simple formula like “I teach and you learn (and if you don’t learn it’s your fault).” Instead, Escalante realized that what he did made an enormous impact on how much students learned, regardless of their poverty or dysfunctional home life.
Research confirms this: The teacher is the No. 1 school-related factor impacting what a student learns. In fact, research found that the most effective teachers get up to five times the learning gains of the least effective teacher. To put that in perspective, a child in a least-effective teacher’s classroom will make, on average, only a half year of learning gains. That same child in the most-effective teacher’s room will make up to 2 ½ years of learning gains. Anyone who has had the privilege to be in a great teacher’s classroom knows this truth from experience.
In fact, if you had a great teacher in your school days or your child has one now, be grateful and send them a thank you note.
I’m not sure if I’ve lived up to the legacy of Mrs. Northway. She is still a giant in my eyes, but I’m grateful she expected excellence from a working-class kid in a messed-up family. She did what great teachers do: She changed lives. That motivates me every day.
Weather JournalPossible scrape with snow Tues