Leaders: Good teachers key to student success

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 18, 2008

By Sarah Nagem
April Williamson’s third-graders at China Grove Elementary know what makes their teacher so special.
“She gives us warnings before we have to pull a slip,” says Jayme Hallman, 9. (Apparently, “pulling a slip” is something you definitely don’t want to do.)
“She always lets us use the laptops, and she’s very nice,” says 8-year-old Rachel Barnhardt.
And, finally, “She helps us learn,” says Xavier Freeman, 8. “If we need help with something, she helps us learn it.”
Her students don’t say they like Williamson because she encourages them to meet state and federal achievement standards on tests ó although, of course, that is the ultimate goal for teachers.
Williamson, who is the Rowan-Salisbury Teacher of the Year, has her own idea of what makes a good teacher, and it also doesn’t just include a focus on test scores: “Someone that truly cares, not just about academics but the emotional growth of students,” she says.
School leaders agree teachers like Williamson are vital to keeping kids engaged ó and in school for good.
Experts say warning signs that students might not make it to graduation show up early, even in elementary school. If they’re not reading by the end of third grade, they are more likely to drop out as teenagers, says Rebecca Garland, chief academic officer for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.
“I think the key to student achievement, to dropouts … is having the best teachers for these students,” says Dr. Judy Grissom, superintendent of the Rowan-Salisbury School System.
And although critics charge schools focus too much on “teaching to the test,” those test scores don’t always reflect what a teacher is really doing in class, school leaders say. Only 65 percent of third-graders at China Grove Elementary passed the end-of-grade math test last school year. Williamson teaches math.
Some schools had much higher passing rates. About 89 percent of third-graders at Bostian Elementary passed the math test.
So how do school leaders measure the quality of teachers?
When it comes to Williamson, the process might not be hard.
Hers is an interactive classroom, where students follow instructions and she doesn’t raise her voice at them.
“If you can hear me, put your hands on your head,” she says, almost in a whisper.
She repeats it two more times until each tiny hand in the room is resting on a head. Then she knows she has their attention.
Monitor and coach
To measure how well teachers are doing, school principals should constantly monitor them in the classrooms, Grissom says.
They’re trained to know what to look for, she says.
Curriculum coaches at schools can be a good resource, especially for new teachers, Grissom says.
And she says elementary teachers should visit other schools to learn how other teachers manage their classrooms, because professional development can’t replace real-world experience.
“Sometimes it’s easy for us to stand up in training and say, ‘This is how you do this,’ ” she says. “But then they go back to the classroom and see those 25 little faces and say, ‘How do I do this?’ ”
Rowan-Salisbury teachers have a mentor their first three years on the job. Williamson says she learned by watching her mentor, who was a veteran teacher, in the classroom.
Dana Curry, a third-grade teacher at Koontz Elementary, has been an educator for 16 years.
She says a good teacher is someone who is personable and flexible.
A bad teacher is someone who is unwilling to make changes and is negative, she says.
“Because they’re going to be negative with the kids,” Curry says.
She tries to make lessons fun in her class.
When it’s time to talk about proper nouns, she uses an English accent. She breaks out a hillbilly accent for common nouns.
The kids get a kick out of it, Curry says.
Dr. Jim Emerson, chairman of the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education, says he appreciates that kind of teaching ó no technology necessary.
“There’s nothing wrong with chalk,” he says.
But there’s no denying schools are becoming more technologically advanced.
Williamson is one of six Rowan-Salisbury teachers who has a 21st Century model classroom. Each student has a laptop computer to use at school.
The class has other technology, too, such as a digital camera and iPods.
The access to technology allows students to see how learning applies to everyday life, Williamson says.
For example, she says, her students can perform virtual knee surgery through a computer program.
The school system is adding up to 10 more 21st Century classrooms.
Emerson says technology in classrooms is important. After all, students’ lives are consumed by high-tech gadgets their parents probably never dreamed of as children.
But he recalls a recent spat with his wife about some schools having more technology resources than others.
“I said, ‘I will trade you all of that for an intelligent, innovative teacher,’ ” he says.
A changing profession
Grissom agrees.
“I am big on technology,” she says. “But technology is not a cure-all by itself.”
Williamson is young ó only 29 ó and she has the computer skills to lead a high-tech classroom.
But not every teacher has those skills. Good teachers, as Curry says, are those willing to be flexible and learn new things, too.
The teaching profession has changed since many veteran teachers started, Williamson says.
Grissom says schools need to encourage youngsters to become teachers. Administrators need a bigger pool of applicants to choose from, she says.
Williamson is thinking about ending her teaching career and becoming a school technology facilitator. In that role, she would help teachers use technology during lessons.
But she’s not ready to go just yet, she says.
She enjoys the role she plays in her students’ lives.
“When they say, ‘I don’t want to go home today,’ that’s when you know, OK, I’m doing something right,” she says.
School leaders hope that kind of thinking among students will continue ó that an 8-year-old who dreads the end of the school day will become an 18-year-old who has the same passion for learning and wouldn’t dream of dropping out of school.