04/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

That Student-Teacher Thing

The education theory du jour is now official; it's all about that student-teacher relationship thing.

Luckily the gods of education have figured that out because I've been terrified for years that my high school English teaching position would be eliminated the moment some genius at Microsoft developed a software program that could do my job only better, faster, and without requiring health insurance.

The latest research has found that if you take a bunch of second graders who are pretty much on the same level at the same school and half go to Miss Stern and Organized, Yet Young and Empathetic and the other half go to Miss Sixty Years Old and Still Working Toward Her Emergency Credential that in three years the first group will be on or ahead of grade level while the second group can plan on staying after school the rest of their lives.

The idea is to fire the incompetent teachers and who could be against that? As a union member I'm all for sacking the losers among us who are wasting their students' time, our taxpayers' dollars and sullying the already lowly image of our profession.

If it's true that teachers' effectiveness can be quantified, then bring on the testing. I want to know my rank. I want to be measured and either given merit pay, or sent back to school for retooling, or given 15 minutes to grab my stapler and Crazy Glue and be hustled out the school house door. It's the right thing to do.

It seems possible to judge elementary school teachers since most of them stay with their students a good chunk of if not the entire school day. But how do you judge the effectiveness of middle and high school teachers? How does one measure and compare the AP History teacher whose students are all university bound with the history teacher next door whose class is a dumping ground for the slow, the stoned, and those with warrants out for their arrests?

When I time travel back to my high school days in the Texas, two of my teachers pop into mind.
Hazel Timmins. Imagine Tallulah Bankhead teaching high school English. She wore inappropriately short skirts and enough fire engine red stick for three women. One day when she suffered from one of her many painful hangovers, she handed me a copy of Catcher in the Rye and told me to sit down and shut up or she'd cut off my nuts. When I finished Catcher we had a three minute one-on-one talk, my first tutorial. She inquired a bit about my tastes and told me to blow off all future class assignments and instead read Philip Roth's Goodbye Columbus and when I was done with that she introduced me to Vonnegut, Malamud, I.B. Singer, and Kerouac. I don't recall any test she gave, any essay assigned, any paper marked and returned. And yet she lead me, a no-nothing teenage jock who had never read a book unless it was assigned (and then I read the Cliff's Notes), to become a lifelong reader.

The administration despised Hazel Timmins, but they loved my senior year English teacher, Margaret Fitzgerald, a first year teacher, a former nun who had just left the convent, and was working on her Masters at the University of Houston.

She was early 30s, peppy, boring, but every day she wrote the lesson plan on the board and greeted us with a smile and a handout as we slouched toward our seats. She loved Chaucer and had us stand one by one and recite, off book, 25 lines from the Canterbury Tales in Middle English. She made sure we pronounced the diphthongs correctly. Her tests were a parade of minutia. I still remember that Chaucer was derived from the French word chausser which meant shoemaker. It has never come up again in conversation or on Jeopardy.

What I remember most about Ms. Fitzgerald's class is that when I wasn't staring at the clock, I was deciding which of my body parts to rip off and hand her in protest. When I think about Ms. Timmins I realize that she was a wisdom figure, the first teacher who really saw me, listened to me, and pushed me in the academic direction I needed to follow.

Had they been analyzed, tested or judged for merit pay, Ms. Timmins would have been booted out of school, while Ms. Fitzgerald would have become the first public school teacher in Texas to declare as a free agent.

I don't know how a test can measure the kind of positive, life-long effect that Ms. Timmins had on me, but if principals and school districts want to pay teachers what they're really worth, they're going to have to figure it out.

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