The reality of ‘put students first’

    Michelle Rhee’s message on the lecture circuit is “Put students first.” That’s exactly what most teachers already do.

    Protesters on Monday distributed flyers outside of Verizon Hall, where former Washington, D.C., school chancellor Michelle Rhee was to speak that night, outlining six reasons why she is bad for students and schools. What was most remarkable about her talk was how an educator so reasonable can be so controversial.

    Her message was one that effective teachers from all over the country, from the small Montana classrooms with fewer than 10 students in a grade to big-city schools stuffed with 40 students or more per class, know and practice: Put students first.

    Despite the education headlines describing administrative acrimony and intransigent labor negotiations, teachers care most about their fundamental commitment to improving student learning. Yes, there may be a few teachers who leave work early, do the bare minimum and ignore professional development opportunities, but they are a very distinct minority. In over 30 years in schools, I have yet to meet a teacher who did not put improving student learning first. Teachers thrive on the challenge and reward of seeing students grow and learn to their full potential.

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    Schools are essentially human organizations. We get a false sense of a school from those reports that pore over test scores or focus on administrator-versus-teacher kerfuffles. If you want to learn about a school, listen to the conversations between teachers and students, teachers and parents, parents and parents. If you listen, you will hear good things and, in some cases, even in those deemed “failing” schools, heroic stories of redemption and grace. Despite the outward appearance of a school building, the essence of education exists in the serendipitous conversations and gestures of good will, celebrations of many minor victories, and the many connections among those actively engaged in learning partnerships.

    Every school building has a special presence. I went to a grand but dilapidated public technical high school that has since been torn down. Even I, a blue-collar kid headed for a blue-collar life, sensed the vibrations of tradition in the same high school my uncles attended but did not graduate.

    I had teachers who understood the personal touch, who knew that an insecure learner needed to know they cared. All of my teachers demonstrated that they wanted me to grow and learn to my full potential without ever saying so. I sensed it as fundamental to their DNA, demonstrated in every tick of a red pen or casual comment.

    In many ways, education is a dance with multiple partners: students, teachers, administrators and parents. Administrators think they are leading the band, but sometimes they are tone deaf. Teachers know the steps and count on students to have perfect pitch. Some students hear but may not listen, but seldom do you find a teacher not ready to partner. The beat goes on.

    In “good” schools—and “good” is not necessarily defined by test scores or neat appearance—there is a celebration of the dance. There is a familiarity and trust among the adults, and between the adults and the students, built on teacher commitment to seeing students grow and learn to their full potential. It is a school spirit hard to quantify, but it is easy to feel when you walk down the halls. Teachers know it and thrive on it. It is the endorphin that drives teachers to put students first, and it keeps them in the dance.

    Joseph T. Cox is the headmaster of The Haverford School.

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