"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said
"I don't much care where," said Alice.
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.
-- Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
We all remember the great teachers we had in school,
but what we didn't know was when we were going
to meet that potentially life-changing person. When
would lightning strike? This year? Next? Never?
I was lucky enough to have three standouts. First,
there was Mr. Miller, my curly-haired, wild-brained
high school art teacher, who fired up a class of restless Jersey suburbanites
with the mind-expanding work of nineteenth-century French avant-garde
painters. Imagine. Then there was my fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Novak,
a bearded, soft-spoken man who took a gang of baseball-obsessed boys
and refined our passion for the game by showing us its mathematical
underpinnings. He also loved taking us out of the classroom -- on hikes
and canoe trips and to kickball tournaments -- in the days before
anybody knew there was such a thing as project-based learning.
Finally, my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Smith, made a shy six-year-old
boy who had just moved to the neighborhood feel at home among
twenty noisy kids who had known each other their whole lives. Plus,
she was a hoot.
I think any of us would feel lucky to have had three or four great
teachers in the thirteen years between kindergarten and our senior year
of high school, but, honestly, that's a miserable success rate. Less than
one great teacher out of every four, and we consider ourselves fortunate.
Instead, wouldn't it be great if we had a half-dozen or more memorable
teachers in our journey through public education? To guide us, like
the Cheshire Cat led a puzzled Alice, with questions that require self-exploration. It's possible, but it may take an attitudinal change -- not so
much on the part of the teachers, but more on the part of parents, who
must realize that public education is not a one-way street. It's not just
school giving and families receiving. No relationship can survive in such
a unilateral fashion.
Here's a way to shift the equation: At a recent lunch, a few of us came
up with the idea of taking a teacher to dinner. Once a year, invite your
son or daughter's teacher over to your house. Give him or her a look at
what makes your little person tick.
Some school districts require such contact. In California's state capital,
for instance, the Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project has become an
integral part of the Sacramento City Unified School District. For the
past seven years, teachers have gone out on a home visit each semester.
Often, the visits are a revelation for the teachers: They'll see the cramped
conditions some kids work in, for instance, revealing why a child doesn't
always get homework in on time.
The program's supporters say bringing teachers into students' homes
helps build trust and brings parents into the education process. More
importantly, such visits can help build a relationship between home and
school, bridging the gulf that often separates teachers from the low-income
population many serve. Other benefits Sacramento educators
have seen include increased student attendance, better test scores and
classroom behavior, and decreased vandalism.
The home visits do something else, something subtle but critical.
They take the pressure off children to be mediators between teachers
and parents. Instead, a relationship can bloom among adults whose
common interest is educating a child. A casual dinner conversation can
segue into other more substantive discussions about, say, recommended
books parents might enjoy with their children, or career goals.
Educators may have expertise in content and pedagogy, but parents
have knowledge of their own children that can be extremely helpful to
teachers in meeting the needs of their students. Teachers and parents
must think of each other as partners in the educational experience. That
partnership could develop at a dinner.
Meanwhile, children come away with a new appreciation of a teacher
who took the time to see them in their own home and learn a little bit
about what makes them tick. My guess is that they'll also have a teacher
who will both inspire and lead them. And one they'll remember the
rest of their life.