KENNEBUNKPORT — If you ask a teacher which of her colleagues does the best job in instructing children, she will probably give you a few names. She may be right — they may be excellent teachers.

But if your next question is, “Have you ever watched them teach?” the answer all too often is, “No, but they’re really good.”

What we base our assessment of a teacher on are intangible effects. The children seem happy when they are in her class. There is no shouting or obvious misbehaviors.

She stays after school to help her kids. The work products hanging in the hallway are neat and creative. His room is organized and attractively decorated. He’s really a caring person to the staff.

All the opposite effects would therefore constitute a poor teacher.

Yet, these effects only tell us whether a teacher has mastered the “art” of teaching. They tell us nothing about whether she has mastered the “science” of teaching.

The high school social studies teacher who keeps his kids happy may not know enough about the course material to effectively teach it. The science teacher who truly knows his stuff may not make a connection with his kids, and thus turns them off.

Learning can’t take place in either environment.

It’s the even balance between the art and science of teaching that proves successful, from grade 1 and straight through graduate school. A teacher must know “how” to teach and “what” to teach.

As a teacher, I found it interesting to be left alone in a classroom of kids, day after day, without ever having another adult come into my room. The principal would show up in the spring for my evaluation, but that was it.

If I performed well on that day, I had a job for another year. But I never had the opportunity to watch someone else teach — they had their job and I had mine. We all closed our doors.

Did I do a good job? Did the children learn their basic first- or third-grade skills? I thought so but who else really knew?

It wasn’t until I became a special education consultant that I opened a closed door, was invited in, and sat down to observe or help a child.

It wasn’t until I became a supervisor of teachers, and then graduate students, that I ever truly evaluated a teacher’s abilities. Then, I looked at both sides of the teaching process — the art and the science.

Whenever I faced a new class of graduate teachers, I kept the closed-door dilemma in mind. I didn’t ask them who they thought could really teach, I asked them which teachers they remember from their childhood.

Their first assignment was always the following: Describe a teacher who had a positive or negative effect on you. How does that influence how you teach?

One graduate student answered with this story:

“I had a history teacher who was in her 60s and near retirement. This 4-foot-5 dynamo would stand on her desk describing in detail the morning activities of the men on the ground who were bombed at Pearl Harbor. Through actual tears she told of air raid drills in the 1940s and life through the Depression.

“She made me love history and learn more about the life my parents and grandparents lived than any textbook. She went on tours to historical sites and she would show us slides and read diaries of pioneers, prisoners of war, and hidden Jews. She made us feel the history.

“I try to import my love of music and reading with the same passion and charisma that this woman brought to me.”

This story made me cry. I can see her standing on that desk with all her passion and knowledge. She had the perfect blend of the art and science of teaching.

The answers were enlightening — both sad and uplifting. We all learned that some teachers have the art and others know their material cold. Some blend the two parts perfectly. Some should never be teachers.

We will never have good teacher evaluations unless we open those doors.

 

– Special to the Press Herald