Payson Mayor Kenny Evans remembers the first day in school as a migrant farm worker when the conviction he did not belong there paralyzed him with fear — until a kind teacher gently told the class his name.
Payson Unified School District Superintendent Casey O’Brien remembers the science teacher who took him on a field trip to Kitty Hawk where the Wright Brothers took wing for the first time — a trip that led directly to his career as a Navy pilot.
Gila Community College Dean Pam Butterfield remembers the principal who sent her home because her skirt was too short — as well as her sewing class triumph of a first-place award for creating a dress. Turns out, that dress was also two inches too short.
The three Rim Country leaders recalled their most vivid moments as students at the opening of a recent educational conference in Payson. Each participant shared a life-changing moment at the half-day seminar sponsored by the Gila County School District, which provides services to all the districts in the county.
Ironically, much of the conference focused on educational reforms in the pipeline that will heap additional restrictions on teachers and base their evaluations on standardized student test scores.
Yet almost all the stories told by the educators and community leaders attending the conference testified to the inspiration and challenge students gain from an original, creative teacher, who teaches about life and mysteries rather than prepares students to pencil in the bubbles on a multiple choice test.
Such inspirational teachers seemed to have touched everyone in the room.
Arizona governor’s aide Rebecca Gau remembers both the science teacher who forever taught her the difference between the
earth’s rotation and its revolution — and the science teacher who patronized her by insisting she was so good in English she didn’t have to bother with learning physics.
Arizona Department of Education Assistant Superintendent Kathy Hrabluk remembers the teacher who never tired of explaining things that students didn’t understand.
Payson Education Center Principal Peggy Miles remembers her chaotic home life and the revolutionary impact of the teacher who treated every student fairly, no matter what their background.
Young School District Superintendent Linda Cheney recalls both the Shakespearean actor who electrified her and the paralyzing stage fright of the first time she tried to speak on stage.
Payson Elementary School Principal Donna Haught recalls the first in-class science experiment that made her think — and gave her a glimpse of a number of mysteries remaining in the world.
Various educational reform movements have tried to improve student achievement by linking ratings for teachers, schools and principals to standardized test scores — while also requiring all teachers to get specific credentials in their field. The latest innovation in Arizona will base teacher evaluations on AIMS test scores.
O’Brien has doubts about that trend, saying that little research links ratings of teacher effectiveness to such standardized scores, which tend to focus on the mastery of facts rather than critical thinking skills.
However, substantial research has accumulated to bolster the drift of the stories of inspirational teachers offered by that roomful of educators and community leaders.
Some educators like O’Brien cite the example of Finland’s schools, cited by many as the best in the world as measured by student achievement and in the narrow gap between the top students and the worst students. That has special relevance for the United States, where the best students match up well against international comparisons, but where the average student has fallen far behind.
Finland achieved those results by instituting comprehensive reforms in 1968 that significantly increased the salaries and status of teachers, created a national, nine-year curriculum for both public and private schools, offered free, open enrollment in any school, eliminated most year-by-year tracking tests, gave teachers as much flexibility as possible in adapting to the needs of individual students and put most of the responsibility for assessing schools in the hands of teachers.
By contrast, teachers in the U.S. complain of ever more complex and burdensome regulations. Each round of education reform has relied more heavily on standardized testing, with several tests each year — with teacher promotions and school futures riding on the outcomes.
The recollections of the community leaders attending last week’s conference at the Best Western Payson Inn Conference Center sponsored by Gila County Schools seemed to validate the emphasis of the research on inspiring, creative, distinctive teachers.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said he spent years working the fields with his constantly moving family before he settled into a school, where a compassionate teacher helped him overcome his paralyzing fear of not fitting in.
He found his niche in the vocational agricultural program along with a group of bright students who didn’t test well. As a result of the encouragement of his teachers, the kid who couldn’t speak at all his first day in class won debating trophies by the time he graduated.
Evans said outsiders would have considered them the school dummies, but the agricultural program with its emphasis on observation, problem solving and real-world problems produced a two-star general, several billionaires and other brilliantly successful people he has remained friends with all his life.
Peggy Miles, now principal of the alternative school for kids who had trouble in traditional settings, said she was saved by that first teacher who held her to a high standard but treated her fairly.
“I hung onto that,” said Miles. “I so admired her for that. Ten years ago, I called her to tell her that and she said ‘I can’t think of anything I did that would have made a difference.’ And I said, ‘It wasn’t what you did, it’s who you were — and how you treated people.’”
Linda Cheney, the principal and superintendent of the tiny Young School District, said that the theater program provided all her best and worst moments growing up — and now she agonized to see so many districts trimming budgets by cutting programs in the arts.
“It hurts my heart to see so many of our arts programs getting thrown under the bus.”
Evans concluded that reformers must take care to make sure that they base their changes on the things that really matter — like the role of the classroom teacher — and not on things easy to measure, like AIMS test scores.
“Schools have come in for a lot of criticism, but in the past 20 years, tremendous progress has been made. As the schools bear that criticism, we need to understand that what we measure is not always parallel with our outcomes.”
Impact of teacher qualities on student achievement:
• Teacher certification in mathematics does result in higher student scores, but appears to have little effect in other areas, according to a review of other studies by the Economic Policy Institute sponsored by the National Academy of Education. However, it seemed to make little difference whether the teacher had a standard certificate, emergency certificate or some other form of qualification. Teachers who themselves got high scores on tests measuring literacy and verbal skills had the biggest impact on student achievement.
•Teacher qualities like experience, verbal skill and knowledge in the subject account for about 20 percent of the difference in student achievement, says a summary of studies of the research base for the federal No Child Left Behind. Family background accounts for about 60 percent of the difference in student scores and qualities of the schools account for another 20 percent.