Good Teachers in Bad Times; Create a Better Learning Environment

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 14, 2008 | Go to article overview

Good Teachers in Bad Times; Create a Better Learning Environment


Byline: Charles Murray, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

It is a bad time to be a good public school teacher, as I had occasion to discover at a personal level when I recently wrote a book on education.

I was criticizing the anemic curricula in history, science and literature currently taught in too many elementary schools. To illustrate, I used the curriculum of the public school system in Frederick County, Md., that two of my children attended. Since I knew that readers would ask why my wife and I left our children in the Frederick County schools if they were so awful, I added a footnote pointing out that most of the teachers had been dedicated and competent, several had been excellent, and, I concluded, Three were the finest K-12 teachers, public or private, that my wife and I have ever known. They deserve to be named: Frank Booth, Steve Nikirk, and Lee Vogtman.

Mr. Booth taught English composition at Brunswick High School. He was fun -he would do things like declaim a Jonathan Edwards sermon standing on a chair in a Puritan minister's robe - but no one got higher than a C - on the first paper, most got Ds and Fs, and Mr. Booth's detailed mark-ups explained exactly why. But his classroom wasn't a punitive place. In the atmosphere he created, the whole class was excited when the first student got a B and ecstatic when the first student got an A. By the end of the year, Mr. Booth's kids were prepared to write term papers at any college in the country.

Mr. Vogtman was ran the drama department at Brunswick High. He was a fine teacher, but his crucial role was as head of a community where students could be found during free periods, lunchtime, after school and on weekends, completely absorbed in working on the next production. His drama department was also a place for growing up. Mr. V. always demanded respect as a teacher, my daughter recalls, but interacting with him outside the classroom taught us how to interact with adults in general.

Steve Nikirk taught fifth grade at Valley Elementary in Jefferson, Md. It would take a book to describe his classroom techniques. Former students in their 30s and 40s still reminisce about the year they spent as citizens of Nikirkskiland, complete with its own culture, government and laws. But the techniques do not capture what he did.

Mr. Nikirk knew how to teach fifth-graders in the same way that Renoir knew how to put color on canvas.

In describing these three teachers, I used the past tense throughout. Here's why.

Mr. Booth no longer teaches in the Frederick County Public Schools. He left Brunswick High four years ago because of Maryland's high-stakes testing program. Faced with relentless pressure to teach to the test, Mr. Booth said, I want to teach my students how to write, not how to pass a test that says they can write, and resigned. He now teaches at an elite private school in the Maryland suburbs. That's good news for the children of rich people in Great Falls and Potomac. …

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