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Thanking Teachers for the Job They Do

In the midst of the debate about how to identify the best teachers and reward them, it's easy to forget that students themselves can be reliable judges. A study of six urban school districts by Thomas Kane of Harvard University found a strong correlation between student perception of teacher quality and student academic growth ("Too much jargon, too few fixes," Boston Globe, Mar. 22).

Within the last week or so, former students have weighed in on this subject. Now a famous novelist, Marie Myung-Ok Lee pays tribute to her high school English teacher who recognized her latent talent and encouraged her to develop it ("What I Learned at School," New York Times, Mar. 31) Her essay resulted in a series of letters to the editor that echoed her sentiments ("The Teachers Who Shaped Our Lives," Apr. 2). Then in a letter to the editor of The Wall Street Journal, another student reminds us of how teachers leave an indelible imprint ("Much Good Coaching Is off the Field," Mar. 21). The last of the encomiums appeared in the Los Angeles Times in an op-ed written by Susan Straight, now a novelist, in which she rejoices that her daughter decided to become a teacher because there's not a more important profession ("A noble profession," Apr. 3).

It's easy to forget that interests, attitudes and values (non-cognitive outcomes) are no less important than knowledge and skills (cognitive outcomes), despite what reformers maintain. That's unfortunate because long after subject matter is forgotten, attitudes remain. Despite the disincentives created by the accountability movement, teachers can get valuable feedback on their success in the affective domain by the use of self-report assessment. Likert inventories ask students to indicate their agreement or disagreement on a five-part scale to a series of statements about various aspects of the course. The responses, of course, have to be completely anonymous to be useful.

Once collected, the information can often hold some pleasant surprises for teachers. When students know that they can be honest in their responses without fear of being seen as fawning, they often express their gratitude for things that teachers have done. As the letter writer said: "It's a shame that too many of us forget or wait too long to thank our coaches from those years." By the time students get around to doing so, their teachers have often passed on.

I don't think non-educators realize how important student comments are, particularly now that teacher morale is at an all-time low. They constitute what economists call psychic income. They won't pay the bills, but they are important feedback. I'm still grateful for the notes that my former students gave me at the end of the semester. They're a reminder of what Henry Adams wrote in 1907: "A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops."

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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