By: Gordon Beinstein
Western Middle School has enjoyed a resurgence these past few years. Our scores are up and our ‘achievement gap’ is narrowing. We have nationally competitive academic teams. Western enjoys an ever-increasing participation rate with students involved in extracurricular activities including sports, music, drama, and any one of a number of clubs. Data from internal and district surveys speaks to an invested, proud, and pleased constituency. As the principal of the building, I get a lot of credit for this growth. They even gave me an award! This praise is unwarranted and misguided as far too many others are doing the work that has resulted in these gains. Our parents have been unendingly supportive and our students have bought into what we are doing. But the main reason for our upward trajectory is that we are staffed with excellent teachers!
I have stated this many times in many different forums. Having worked in five middle schools in four districts across the state over the past three-plus decades, I know a good staff when I see one and Western’s teachers are second to none! But what makes them so good? As I am fortunate enough to spend every day with our staff in and out of classrooms, I think I have an idea….
There has been a lot of research on the impact that good teaching has on a child’s learning. A child in the classroom of a ‘poor’ teacher will learn as little as half a year of content and skills in a school year while a child fortunate enough to be sitting in the classroom of a teacher deemed ‘excellent’ will learn as much as a year and a half worth of material in a year’s time. Multiply that out over a couple of years and it is easy to understand the impact of quality teaching on child’s growth. I have been witness to this exact phenomena over the past couple of years. Many of our students come to us with significant deficiencies only to graduate from Western at or above grade level. This is the definition of gap-closing instruction and why ensuring that the right teacher is in front of our children is the most important thing I do.
I have been fortunate to hire a large percentage of the staff at Western, and those here that I didn’t hire I wish I could take credit for (and often do!). When interviewing for new teachers, there are two questions we ask ourselves after the candidate has left: ‘Are they smart, and do they like kids?’ We figure that we can provide everything else that our new staff needs to be successful. I strongly believe that WHO is in front of your children is most impactful in middle school as pubescent students learn FOR teachers as much as they learn FROM them. There needs to be a connection. That is why the Western staff is so good. Yes, they know their content. Yes, they are skilled in educational pedagogy but, in the end, they are excellent at what they do because they LOVE their students. They show their commitment to their children not necessarily by being all warm and fuzzy (although they are invariably kind to the children). They demonstrate their belief in each child by holding all students to high standards. They refuse to accept a child’s first worst effort as their final product. They urge, cajole, plea, occasionally bribe, but they never settle. Good teaching is holding kids accountable. It is not giving up on a child or allowing them to give up on themselves. It is about showing every day that you care. Children do not learn from people they do not like and who they suspect do not like them. In the end, kids work for people not for grades. Or to phrase it another way: good teachers have high expectations for ALL, regardless of circumstance or perceived ability, but they never forget that they are working with children who require their understanding and compassion.
If your child is currently sitting in a classroom of a teacher that fits this description, let them know how much you appreciate them. While our desks are filled with ugly ties, stale brownies, and hideous coffee mugs as tokens of appreciation this time of year, a note from you or your child letting them know how you feel is always a much-cherished token. (And if you can’t help yourself, you can always stick a DD gift card in with the note!)
Have a wonderful holiday break, and we will see you in the new year!