“It’s whack-a-mole,” says Laura Press, moments before she leads me to another realization about teaching. We’re sitting in her empty classroom at Hamilton High School at the end of a long school day. Her phone keeps pinging because a parent will soon be arriving to demand an explanation for why her son failed a test even though he was not present to take it because he was at the dentist. When Laura suggested that the student schedule his dental appointments for after school, the mom fired off an email, got in her car and set her GPS for Hamilton.Laura, petite and composed in a neat flowered dress, is remarkably calm even though she’s taught a full day and her desk is heaped with papers to grade; in addition to her teaching commitments, she’s the director of her Small Learning Community. Small Learning Communities, or SLC’s, are what happened when Hamilton divided its 3,400-plus students into smaller groups, each with its own principal. On top of that, Hamilton is the site of two magnets: a Humanities Magnet similar in demographics to Jennifer’s class at Cleveland Magnet, and a Music Magnet with performance requirements for entrance.
About half of the students overall at Hami are Latino/a; 25% are African-American; 4% are Asian; 19% are white, though the majority of white and Asian students attend the magnets. About half of all students are eligible for free and reduced lunch. So in some ways, her class is similar demographically to Dennis’. But, as I’m soon to realize, that doesn’t matter as much as you’d think.
When Laura talks about whack-a-mole, what she means is that no one educational philosophy is going to meet the needs of all children. What might work in Dennis’ class won’t work in her class. And to get even more specific, what works in her 2nd period class might not work in her 5th period class. Every class has its own unique personality. After 22 years in the classroom, Laura’s seen waves of supposed innovation come and go: highly scripted instruction, No Child Left Behind, now Common Core and teacher evaluations pegged to test scores. “You can read all these experts and they have these great solutions,” she tells me. “The problem is, those solutions work for like four kids. But I have 36 kids in my classroom and maybe that solution isn’t going to work for them.”
She checks her phone, which is pinging with an update on the enraged parent. “Nobody wants to admit this,” she says, “but the only thing that works is that you’ve gotta sit with each kid and find out what’s going on with them. Every kid in some way just needs to be heard. Every kid in some way needs you.”
In her opinion, the idea that anyone will ever come up with single system of measurement or instruction is naïve in the face of the complexity of real human beings. “It’s slippery. It’s intangible. It takes emotional investment. It takes time,” she says. “No one wants to hear this because it’s complicated and it won’t lead to a quick fix. This whole data-driven thing, it’s coming from this sort of arrogant place, it’s like on the one hand, we’re gonna fix this and at the same time we’re gonna follow every new trend like an iPhone. It’s part of the problem of being alive in 2013, we can track everything. But just because we have data doesn’t mean the data means anything.”
She is dismissive of the notion, currently being floated by several large charter management organizations, that the best answer for high-needs schools in low-income areas is to bring in young, enthusiastic teachers who work like demons for two to five years and then, when they burn out and quit, bringing in a fresh set of new teachers for another two to five years. “It take you ten or twelve years to feel really grounded, to feel confident that you know this job, that you can face the challenge, that you can deliver the content of your subject area and also make kids feel safe, make them feel heard, while still keeping the class under control. That’s something that takes a long, long time to master.”
Though she’s aware that there are, in her words, “some very bad teachers,” she thinks evaluation systems are not going to get rid of them because those teachers will figure out some way to game whatever evaluation system is in play. “There’s this idea, it’s like a new industrial revolution, that teachers are interchangeable,” she says. “The idea is that we’ll just pull out one teacher and put another one in, therefore it doesn’t matter who shows up, the personality or the attitude, it doesn’t matter because they’re just plugging in an equation.”
With 44 kids in each class, Laura ends up working seven days a week because she grades papers on weekends, taking the time to make individual comments on each paper. In the end, whatever anyone says, she believes that this personal engagement is the essence of teaching. “When I think about the teachers who made a difference in my life, what do I remember from those teachers’ classes? I remember how I felt in those teachers’ classes. I felt cared for. I felt like this person was invested in me in a very real way.”
Her phone pings again; the angry parent is at school. Laura heads off to calm her down. And I’m left to put another piece in the puzzle of what makes a great teacher. Laura’s right: just as all great teachers are different, all students are different, and there will never be any “best practice” to deal with all of them.
And you can create measurement systems until you’re blue in the face (though for God’s sake, take a breath) but they’ll never work until we acknowledge what Laura’s saying. “Teaching” is not a single process. It’s a whole web of human interactions, each one different depending on the individuals involved and the subject being discussed. The fact that we want easy answers, or any concrete answers—well, as any parent of a toddler will tell you, just because we want something, that doesn’t mean we’re going to get it.