Sunday, February 27, 2011

Who I Am Today

Prior to the second vote on Luna's education "reform" plan in the Idaho Senate Thursday, Senator Denton Darrington (R-Declo) took the floor to speak against legislation that is an all-out assault on public school teachers. Darrington, a retired teacher, spoke out against both bills and on behalf of public school teachers who would be losing their ability to negotiate contracts and would begin being paid based on student performance. Darrington said, "the greatest measure of the success of a teacher is not at the moment, it's down the road."

Now, anybody who knows me personally or who has followed this blog from the beginning knows I've been critical of Senator Darrington on more than one occasion. However, he's right on this. The recent discussion about Tom Luna's dismantling of public education and Senator Darrington's comments during the floor debate have really hit home for me. I've been reminded of just how I got to be the person I am today and how much of who I am is the direct result of public education and the noble efforts of public school teachers.

Everyone has a favorite teacher; that one person who went the extra mile and made a measurable difference in their lives. Sometimes it is someone who makes you really want to learn about a particular subject, sometimes it is someone who instills in you a desire to be the best at any certain thing, sometimes it is a coach. Regardless of who that teacher was for each of us, those people are under attack in this country, especially in Idaho where influence on policy is radiating from corporations not classrooms. For me, there isn't just one teacher who made a lasting impact on my life, there were a half dozen or so who are a large part of who I am today.

One of the first teachers to really leave an impression on me was not only passionate about teaching, she was passionate about technology. In the late 90s, we were spending time in the darkroom developing film (digital cameras hadn't made it to my middle school yet), we designed the school yearbook, we were creating slide shows, and it was in that classroom that I created my first website. I'd never been challenged in this way. However, what endeared this teacher to me was not what she taught me in the four years I spent in her classroom, it was what she did when I left that classroom. She returned to teaching in a regular classroom and in that class was my kid brother. Her patience with him and her praise really helped him regain his confidence in his own ability to learn. She turned around what had been a rocky start to his education. He will graduate from high school this May.

When I think about my education, I will always think back to my sophomore year of high school and how lost I was. I lacked direction and the desire to make anything of my life. As my sixteenth birthday approached, what I wanted most was to drop out of high school. If not for my History and German teacher, I'm certain I would have been a high school dropout. Without even knowing it at the time, his active participation in my education, the challenge of learning a foreign language in his classroom, and his sincere interest in my success kept me in school and I owe my high school diploma, in part, to him. That teacher? Former candidate for Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction and former member of the Idaho Senate, Bert Marley.

High school was a trying time in many ways, but it was not without dedicated teachers who wanted nothing more than to see me succeed. There was the 12th grade English teacher who suggested a book that remains my favorite even today--The Picture of Dorian Gray. He encouraged students to seek knowledge through reading, to read for fun and to branch out from their typical reading choices. He encouraged me to apply to college wherever I wanted, not just the places that everyone else was. And he, to this day, is just as thrilled to hear about what I'm currently reading as he is to hear about my successes. His opposition to pay for performance over the years hasn't been based on any fear that he'll be impacted negatively by such a policy--his students are by and large a success inside and outside of the classroom--but, he, like many other educators (including Denton Darrington) sees the slippery slope that is Tom Luna's plan. If this teacher were paid for performance would it make any difference in his students or their future success? No, absolutely not. How do I know this? Because he wasn't paid based on my performance or the performance of my classmates and we are each successful in our own way.

For me there was my high school U.S. History teacher who means more to me than I can express here, but perhaps my B.A. in History says more than any combination of words could. Though I am currently unsure of what I want to do in the future, I hope that some day it will include teaching U.S. and Idaho History to college students and I have a very good U.S. History teacher to thank for that. What this woman taught me was not confined to the four walls of her classroom and I continue to be appreciative of the things she taught me that made me a better friend, a better student, a better sister, and an overall better person.

Another of my high school teachers, my government teacher, had a hand in the person I am today. He and his wife, another public school teacher, were of great personal strength to me. It's hard to express what it means to have someone truly looking out for you in the times when you most lack direction. They were always looking out for me. My government teacher was something almost unheard of in Declo--a Democrat. He challenged the way I thought, politically and philosophically, and didn't mind that I brought to his classroom a liberal viewpoint uncommon in his other students. He took a few of us to the Lincoln Day Banquet in Burley one year to hear Senators Crapo and Craig speak and that fed my interest in politics. Some of the best advice I've ever received in my life came from that one teacher.

It was the quiet, gentle English professor who taught me how to incorporate the things I found all around me into my writing. Our conversations about choosing something that I was passionate about and would make me happy ultimately redirected my academic career. Doing what you love and not just what is comfortable are very different things, she pointed that out to me. Her kindness and support have nourished my life, academic and personal.

Part of why it has been so hard to watch as the faculty at Idaho State University have been silenced is because several of the teachers who have had a significant impact on my life I first encountered in classrooms at ISU. Two of those professors have long since moved on to other universities where they have found success and new admiring students.

In my young life, there have been a handful of people who have offered me countless opportunities to succeed, having complete faith in my abilities. One of those people is a professor I had at ISU. Now as part of ISU's administration, she and I don't have much contact, but not a day goes by that I don't find myself using a skill she taught me or approaching a project in ways that she would be proud of. She was first my professor, I served as her intern for a time, she became my academic advisor, and finally my friend. My life has been enriched because of this teacher and I will forever be indebted to her.

When we think about what is taught in the classroom, it is so easy to cite statistics of passage or failure, but what seems to be lost in the discussion is the long term impact of the person doing the teaching. As Senator Darrington said, we may not see the immediate impact, but that doesn't mean ten years down the road a student won't point to a particular teacher and say that is precisely when things turned around, that is precisely when my life became a success.

Statistics or the simple existence of my high school diploma will never reflect what I learned in my K-12 education in Idaho's public schools. No diploma or degree can express the kind of person I am, the loyal friend, proud sister, and caring human being. And none of my successes would be considered the type of good performance my teachers would have been rewarded for had Tom Luna's plan been in place while I was still in school. Regardless of that fact, I can point to seven individual teachers and professors and say with complete certainty that who I am today is because of them. There is no benchmark for measuring the success of those teachers and there should never need to be.


Tim B said...

Not sure where you are going with this post but wanted to ask a question. How will the Luna Plan stop good/great teachers from becoming influential in the lives of their students?

I'm still on the fence about the "Luna Idea" and as I have no children in school, it's important to understand both sides of this issue.

Sara E Anderson said...

Tim, eliminating job security and negotiating rights make good teachers not want to teach in Idaho.

Tara A. Rowe said...

Eliminating job security and the ability to negotiate sure would make me take a long hard look at my future career and that's a decision I will be making soon--whether or not to teach in this state.