The First Rule Of Teaching: Do No Harm

10/22/2010 08:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It wasn't until I went on a field trip with my son and his eighth grade teacher that I started pondering the recent debates about how a teacher's performance in the classroom should be evaluated.

My son and his teacher, Jennifer, were deep in conversation about some machine that my son had built at home out of spare parts. Jennifer listened, asked questions, then listened some more. She's a former engineer, so she has lots of high-powered technical knowledge she might have sprinkled onto my son's head like falling leaves. Instead, she focused on getting my son to ask the right questions, inserting facts only where she had to, until at last he said, "Oh! I know what I could try next. Thanks!"

I couldn't follow their conversation in detail -- I barely passed high school physics -- but it was suddenly clear that I was in the presence of one of those brilliant teachers who we hope like hell our children have at least a few times in their lives.

What makes a teacher brilliant? It's not easy for me to say, despite the fact that I've ushered three children and two stepchildren through school and into college. Along the way, I've been a school volunteer and have attended countless parent-teacher conferences and PTO meetings.

But it was only at that moment, with Jennifer and my son, that I really considered what makes a teacher brilliant and not just okay, or downright evil. While we've never had a teacher as evil as Miss Trunchbull in Roald Dahl's brilliant book, Matilda -- the one who locked children in a tiny room with spikes on the walls -- we've certainly had our share of scary teachers.

There was, for instance, the elementary school teacher who made fun of my youngest son because he was anxious and had facial tics. When he told her that he wanted to be a mathematician, she laughed and said, "You'll never be a mathematician if you keep making those faces!" He also had a teacher who, when it was time to make gingerbread houses for Christmas, called him "defiant" because he didn't follow her A-frame plan and created his own design. The very next year, a teacher told my son that he would "grow up to be another Uni-bomber" because he had drawn a sketch of a gun he'd seen on YouTube.

Most teachers, thankfully, have not been so woefully ignorant or mean. Among the many teachers in the lives of our five children, most have simply followed their hearts in an effort to do good in the world. They get up every morning, balancing family life with work like most of us -- only their work involves the emotional and exhausting rigors of caring for other people's children. They fight for what their students need, and sometimes, like the rest of us, they are irritable or too exhausted to be kind. They snap at the kids, or even, in the case of one math teacher at our junior high who, after being pushed to the limit by a wayward kid taunting him from the doorway, chase kids down the hall while waving chairs over their heads. Really.

Burnout isn't their fault, or at least not entirely. The educational system is overburdened -- we all know that -- and often more of a premium is placed on crowd control and compliance among students than on anything else. Students come to class unprepared or are confrontational, and parents are equally so. It's no wonder that our teachers are stressed and overwhelmed. If they'd wanted to be cops, they would have signed up for the police academy.

Yet, a few rare teachers continue to do their jobs well, or even brilliantly. My oldest daughter, always fearful of writing, became an avid writer because her sixth grade English teacher made her believe that she could do it -- even as that teacher was battling breast cancer. My oldest son's first social studies teacher inspired in him a lifelong love of politics. A French teacher's encouragement led our younger daughter to study in Paris.

What sets those teachers apart? Brilliance in the classroom isn't about a teacher's education, training or classroom experience. No, the kind of teacher who inspires students to learn because they want to, instead of because they have to, has more to do with elusive qualities, like being willing to meet a child where he is, having a keen and sturdy sense of humor, respecting every child's strengths and bravely setting forth every day ready to try something new.

There has been a lot of debate about how best to test our teachers, such as asking whether we should use standardized student test scores to evaluate a teacher's performance. But the most important things to measure in a teacher are things you can't test for, like the willingness to trust that, within every child, there is a better person who just needs to be coaxed to come out. How do you test for that?

While we figure that out, the first rule to follow when evaluating teachers should be the same one we use in medicine. Teachers, like doctors, should first, do no harm.