Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Great Teachers, Part II

In my other life, I'm a professional writer. And lately, we writers have noticed that a lot of people take good writing for granted. Anyone, the thinking goes, can write -- so why pay someone big bucks to craft an article for you when anyone can hammer out some words on a keyboard?

As writers, we know that good writing doesn't just happen. Good writers are also good researchers. Good writers are connected. Good writers conduct interviews with top experts -- and ask the tough questions. Good writers understand the difference between heresay and fact, and good writers know how to present opposing opinions in a balanced manner. Good writers make reading fun. We know how to structure a paragraph, a sentence, an article to attract your eye and amuse your intellect.

Good writers -- ones who have honed their skills for years -- are also typically peeved when someone with no experience is hired to write an article on, say, anything, because all too often that article ends up looking like this.

What does this have to do with teaching? Good question.

As a homeschooler, I've often argued that teaching degrees and certifications are unnecessary. Then I interviewed a woman who is National Board Certified teacher.

The amount of time and dedication she's put into her profession is amazing. (See Great Teacher.) And for the first time, I could see how, to someone like her, homeschool parents look like a bunch of uneducated hicks.


Being a classroom teacher is entirely different than homeschooling your children. To teach in a classroom, you need a broad understanding of child development, learning styles and curriculum. You need a teacher tool box, full of ideas for reaching every single student that crosses into your classroom.

Homeschooling parents don't need all that. To homeschool effectively, a parent needs to love and understand his or her child. I don't need to know all about auditory learners to reach my very active kinesthetic learner. I don't need to know how to handle an autistic child in the classroom because, frankly, none of my kids are autistic. I do, however, need to know how to handle a highly-spirited, gifted child.

And here's the kicker: Because I love my children, because I know them and want the very best for them, I, like most homeschool parents, will walk to the ends of the earth (or search the Internet all night, whichever comes first) until I find something that works for my child. Have you ever seen a homeschooler's house? It's filled with books, learning activities, games and curriculum catalogs. The bookshelves are likely jammed -- with everything from simple storybooks to college textbooks and books about learning theory, brain development and homeschooling. Most homeschool parents, like most dedicated teachers, spend years expanding their skills. Like teachers, we attend conferences. We share ideas. And we learn.

As a writer, I'm appalled when someone with no experience is hired to write an article. But I never -- never -- tell someone who wants to write that they can't do it. Because once upon a time, I was a Registered Nurse.


  1. Thanks for a great post! I always enjoy your writing.

  2. I remember your RN days. And you were good at that. But you're a great writer (and could certainly write a gardening article better than that, and with, ahem, fewer subheadings!) and you're and even better homeschooler, and an awesome mom!

  3. We have bookcases stuffed full in every room. There are never enough books! Reading fosters writing. I think that's why all four of my children love to write.

  4. Excellent point! Over the weekend, I've read a couple of articles on what makes a great teacher, one in The Atlantic and the other in The New York Times magazine. Both looked at a lot of recent research, and it was all very interesting, but what struck me was that the way everyone is gauging teacher effectiveness is by the results on standardized tests.

    Frankly, my kids are awesome test takers, and if I wanted to, I suppose I could say that I'm a great teacher because they do well on standardized tests. However, I don't consider standardized tests any great measure of what kids have learned, especially tests of basic math & verbal proficiency.

  5. Sandra,
    You bring up an interestin point. How *do* we gauge teacher effectiveness? In the age of No Child Left Behind, standardized test scores seem the obvious answer. But are high test scores a sign of true learning? Or even necessarily a sign of good teaching? As a child, I always scored very well on tests -- often in spite of some pretty horrendous teachers.

    Good teachers, in my opinion, inspire others to learn. They help others to think, question and find resource. And they inspire creativity while nurturing curiosity.

  6. Excellent point and an encouraging note to a homeschooling mother who may be (just perhaps) despairing of reaching certain of her children on certain days!

  7. Good post, Jenny. It made me wonder about flipping the observation on writing, the same way you flipped the teacher one. Many people are good writers when they're communicating with their friends and family. The language can be very loose and still get meaning across, because the context is known, the inside knowledge is a given. Professional writers, even those writing for a specialized audience, have to set the context and make the meaning clear to a broad array of readers.

  8. Intriguing, Jill! I've been pondering that one for 2 days now. I think you're on to something...

  9. haven't read much over here in a while so thought i'd stop by! i read that article you linked to...oh dear. that's all i have to say on that. you and sandra hit the nail on the head with the standardized tests. my students very rarely show any improvement on their test, and it is an alternate assessment for special needs children. so they couldn't figure out if the scale or thermometer was used to tell the temperature...my darling little S can write her name now and she couldn't 6 months ago. i have a 4th grader who just learned to write her name...does that make me a bad teacher? nope! it makes me a pretty good one actually, because she learned to do it! ganted half her letters are backwards and some of them are missing...but i know that's her name (which then leads into jill's comment). she can show you numbers 1-5 most days when she couldn't before. she IS learning, but no test will ever measure exactly WHAT she is learning.