Saturday, June 22, 2013

Teachers and Students Are People - Not Percentages

It has become alarmingly apparent that our avaricious, self- serving politicians and law makers turned educational pundits have failed to grasp one of the very basic tenets of good pedagogy  in their quest to reform educational practice and teacher effectiveness -- children are not numbers to be manipulated and skewed for the purpose of satisfying  private agendas. This unconscionable bastardization of our school system under the guise of educational reform is most disingenuous and is an affront to all teachers who view our calling as a civic and moral responsibility and not just a job. The time has come fellow badasses to be heard. We need to be vocal and convey the idea that real education is often times not limited to rubrics and sliding scales, and the effectiveness of teachers cannot always be ascertained through the simplistic and myopic implementation of APPR.

I was reminded of this last year after a visit from a former student of mine.  Maria sat in the last row,  last seat in my classroom some ten years ago. She was pleasant enough but by no means did she excel in the course. In fact, if it were 2013 instead of 2003, and my teacher evaluation was predicated on her academic performance that year, I would have undeniably earned the ignominious distinction of “ineffective.” While Maria did improve somewhat as the year went on, she was a chronic homework dodger and did not perform well on quizzes or essay assignments.  Consequently, her grades indicated very little  “growth” from September to June, something that would have rendered me unsuitable somehow for my position as English teacher.

But the numbers did not tell the whole story. Actually, I never had the whole story, until now. What the report cards and flow charts and data analysis could not possibly reflect was that Maria was struggling with some life issues -- circumstances that precluded her from engaging in academic endeavors to the fullest extent. She was attempting to cope with the loss of a sibling, and the subsequent divorce of her parents.  She found it virtually impossible to complete reading assignments or answer vocabulary questions. She was drowning.

All of this information came to me last week as I watched this young lady wade through the quagmire of memories that were still very painful for her to articulate. “That is really awful Maria,” I said to her. “I really wish I had known all of that when you were in my class.” She titled her head ever so slightly to the side and smiled. “It’s ok Mr. Nappi,” she replied. “Somehow, you did know. You did. And that’s why I’m here.”

Maria’s comment, although at first cryptic, soon became  the springboard for the most poignant moment in my career. Maria went on to explain that despite her failing grades, I made her see that she had value, as both a student and person. She spoke tearfully about how I was the only one that year who listened to her, and offered her different avenues to complete assignments and other tasks germane to the class.  She told me that I made learning fun and relevant to her despite her troubles. And then she said the one thing that really touched me in a way I never thought possible. “Mr. Nappi," she said.  "The only reason I stayed in school was you. Because of what you taught me, I knew that as soon as I could get all of my other stuff together, I could be a student too. You gave that to me. And I just had to tell you.”

Maria finished high school.  She then went on to complete 5 years of college, earning both a bachelor's and master’s degree.

This anecdote underscores several things. First of all, it is further evidence that the new teacher evaluation system does not account for differences in student intelligence, aptitude, background, societal influence, maturity level, socio-economic status, or a myriad of other similar factors that differentiate students as unique and, therefore, unpredictable conglomerations of inherent influences, over which students and teachers have little, if any, control. Secondly, I believe it provides a window of insight into just how erroneous and inherently faulty the present APPR plan is, for its myopic structure  does not take into account the human factor -- the vicissitudes of life that all too often play an instrumental role in a student’s score.  Lastly, and perhaps most important, is the idea that the success of  a teacher where a child is concerned cannot be measured like a profit margin. Those who believe this have absolutely no grasp on education and no real understanding of what makes teachers effective. Assigning a numerical value to teachers to ascertain their worth is an abomination that erodes the integrity of the profession and undermines the basic reason why we entered the field when we did.

Every Badass Teacher has in his or heart the welfare of children -- not some numerical score that is designed to pit teacher against teacher and school district against school district in a frenetic dash for limited funds and hollow distinctions.

Incidentally, but by no means an accident, Maria is now a teacher herself, paying it forward.

Frank Nappi has taught English and Creative Writing at Oceanside High School for 25 years. He is also the author of four novels. To learn more about Frank, please visit his site at and follow him on his Facebook fan page and on Twitter: @franknappi.

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