(James Ryan is a motivational educator, homeschool parent, nationally recognized developer of improved systems for major organizations, and a best-selling author with Steve Forbes. His insights follow this introduction.)
One of the best things in my life has been sharing time with, and watching, great teachers unlock the promise in our children despite all the mandates that directly tie the hands of teachers and prevent teaching. I always enjoyed sitting in the back of an English class where I could watch two exceptional young women get through to urban high school students, breathing life into To Kill a Mockingbird, or Of Mice and Men. Every year I would eavesdrop on physics classes tracking bobblehead dolls on bungee-cord drops down a stairwell, or battling with homemade catapults. I smiled every time students would share with me about teachers they really liked. Parents would be genuinely surprised at how often the talk in the teacher lunchroom is about our pride in children who are doing better and better each week, despite the system.
But over the years, as I looked at the best teachers, something finally dawned on me. The very best ones were not the ones the system expected to excel. They were exceptional because of something far different, something that an “outsider” like James Ryan in his passage below, seems to have figured out faster than I did.
Please do not think that I am dismissing experience, knowledge, subject matter expertise, or training. I am not. But I have learned those things are secondary. For the teacher, the two most powerful factors in teaching effectiveness are a teacher’s visible passion for teaching, and having genuine high expectations and belief in the children. Children can tell when it’s real – and they respond! And as I watched these teachers (and sat through hundreds of parent-teacher nights and conferences), another factor became clear – far and away the most important characteristic in the child that made a difference is when those children had parents who shared the exact same passion and expectations for their sons and daughters.
Surprisingly, despite what legislators and career DoE bureaucrats seem to think is needed in a good teacher, published studies on real student and teacher attitudes are very rare. In 2008 Perri Applegate at the University of Oklahoma conducted an excellent analysis of what led to success in rural school educations. The crux of the findings was apparently lost on many educators – success did not come from the normal education metrics, or from suitcases full of money for education, but rather from effective co-responsibility between parent, teacher, and student to foster an attitude of success. Midgley, Feldlaufer and Eccles in 1989 did a study that is still relevant today about the strong effect a teacher’s attitude towards students has on how the student performs. Barkley in his book Wow! Adding pizzazz to teaching and learning, presents a compelling argument that children can only learn from a teacher if they like that teacher. There are a handful of treatises on classroom attitudes written in the 1980s that are still relevant today.
Here is James Ryan’s perspective. It has been wait-listed by the panel as likely to be included and quoted in the main chapters of the 2nd edition of Lifting the Curtain: The disgrace we call urban high school education. Ryan is very actively involved with helping to improve the education of our children. He is a strong supporter of many leading national programs to fix the real problems in our schools.)
A home school teacher dismays the parents of a child when she advises that the child should go into 3rd grade rather than the goal of 4th when transitioning from home school to private school. The teacher believed that working memory and attention may be limiting factors.
How could a child, who had always before been identified as gifted, slow down so much in one year? The parents take action. First, they find a test of working memory – read a long number and recite it backwards from memory. The parents test this using a credit card number. The daughter gets a quick glance and the card is turned over. How many can she recite backwards from memory? The results is all – a very rare result for any child.
So, it’s not a working memory issue as thought by the home school teacher. Next, one parent becomes a coach for his daughter with a goal of helping her pass the 3rd grade standardized test in 4 weeks, even though the child had recently passed the 2nd grade test with only average results.
Did the child achieve the goal? Yes, with flying colors. How could a parent allow his child to achieve more in 30 days than was achieved in the prior 7 months? The parent used leadership and coaching techniques proven in industry to motivate, remove self-limiting blocks, and empower the student to teach themselves. Want more motivated students? Allow teachers to become better leaders – it’s a science anyone can learn. Teachers lead students and some lead better than others.
Want high performing students? Teach less, coach more.