A Complex Web: Teacher-Student Relationships

CJ Westerberg, January 26, 2012 8:04 PM


Two students from the same family
experienced the same teacher differently . . .

Editor's Note:  We particularly liked this guest post for The Daily Riff because its narrative reminds us how school life is full of relationships and experiences unique to every student - even those within the same family - and with the same teacher. 
                                                                        - C.J. Westerberg

Memorable Teachers

"Like most of us,
they (teachers) had complex personalities
that meshed with some people and conflicted with others."

by Joseph Ganem Ph.D.

According to education reformers the essential element is the teacher. Under the tutelage an effective highly qualified teacher, students will meet proficiency standards. Therefore top teachers should be rewarded with merit pay and low performing teachersfired.  It's often not hard to identify bad teachers, but what about excellent teachers?
What are the characteristics of truly great teachers?

Federal law requires that teachers be "highly qualified," meaning that they hold a
minimum of a bachelors degree in the subject that they teach, be fully certified, and pass rigorous state tests on core subject knowledge. In addition to meeting these requirements,
it is expected that teachers demonstrate effectiveness, meaning that their students make "adequate yearly progress" on standardized tests. Teachers are also expected to be effective with students from different backgrounds and with different instructional needs.

However, teaching is performed by real human beings, not idealized fantasy people.

I've reflected on some of my memorable teachers in high school.  Did my teachers have the abilities that reformers seek?  I went to a large (over 2000 students) homogeneous (all middle class white) suburban high school.  Of course, even for a student bodywithout any ethnic or economic diversity, there is always a diversity of interests and abilities.

The story continues . . .

For example, senior year I took AP calculus with "Dr. D".  He was the most "highly qualified" teacher in the math department, the only one with a Ph.D.   A soft-spoken middle-aged bearded man, he projected the aura of a stereotypical college professor.  He had a deepunderstanding of calculus and relished teaching it to the select group of 20 students in my class.  We were the top students in the school and all of us aspired to pass the AP exam on the subject.  He treated us more like colleagues than high school students.  I enjoyedhis class and I would go on to pass the AP exam and earn college credit for calculus.

"I learned from my experiences with them (teachers)
that relationships matter
and that all relationships are part of a complex web."

Of course, Dr. D taught other math classes.  My sister, a high school junior, took his algebra class at the same time I took calculus.  It could be said that Dr. D was a demanding algebra teacher who had high expectations of his students. The truth is that like many people with a Ph.D.- level math background, he regarded algebra as obvious.  Therefore, in his mind, students who submitted incorrect answers to problems must not be taking him or his class seriously.  He responded indignantly to less than perfect homework, crumpling the offending paper, throwing it to the floor and stomping on it.

He drove my sister to tears with frequent tantrums directed at her because my sister needed algebra explained to her.  For my sister, algebra was not obvious.  My sister andI told conflicting stories about Dr. D that confused my mother.  How could we possibly have the same teacher? 

I had none of the personal issues with Dr. D that plagued my sister.

Eventually algebra class became unbearable for her.  My mother contacted the school to request a meeting with Dr. D so that she could mediate the conflict between him and my sister.  He responded that he was busy and unsure of a time that he would be available to meet.

Furious, my mother spoke to the principal and demanded that my sister be transferred to an algebra class with a different teacher.  The rules allowed dropping a course and foregoing any credit, but transferring to a different teacher was not permitted.  My sister could either quit algebra altogether or continue with Dr. D.  My mother would hear none of it.  Dr. D had refused to meet with her so my sister would no longer be in his class, but she would finish algebra. The principal backed down and transferred my sister to a class with a different teacher.

Blindsided by the exception to what he thought was an unbreakable rule, Dr. D
approached me to ask what happened.  I didn't know what to say and just shrugged. He appeared hurt and confused by the events.  He did not know how badly his relationship with my sister had deteriorated, and he had clearly underestimated my mother.  My sister finished algebra that year with a different teacher.

One evening, late in the school year, a group of Dr. D's students held a tribute for him. They performed skits that gently spoofed his erudite mannerisms and gave glowing personal testimonials about his impact on their lives. Dr. D was visibly moved as he arose at the end of the production to accept some gifts of appreciation. I had not seen students express this kind of heartfelt public thank you for any other teacher in the school. Clearly Dr. D had touched many young lives, changing them for the better. I watched the event but did not participate. I did not like how Dr. D treated my sister.

Mrs. A., a friend of my mother who lived across the street from us, hated Dr. D.  Two years before my senior year, her eldest son, then only 16, ran away from home.  She had not heard from her son since, and had no idea what had happened to him.  Her son had struggled in school, but math was a subject he felt good at. That is until he landed in Dr. D's algebra class.  According to Mrs. A, Dr. D constantly berated her son's performance in math and destroyed whatever little remained of his self-confidence. After his experience with Dr. D, her son saw little reason to remain in school and vanished. As far as Mrs. A was concerned, Dr. D should be fired.

Mrs. A would spend many years searching for her son. One day she gotta lucky break
-- a tip that her son lived in a particular city in a different state.  She found him alive and
well.  In fact, he was gainfully employed, owned a home and was happily married. He had
left and cut off all contact with his family in order to escape from an abusive and alcoholic
father who Mrs. A  eventually divorced.

In my senior year, I also took AP English with Dr. S. and a college accredited psychology course with Mrs. R. Both were highly qualified teachers. Dr. S held a Ph.D. in English literature, chaired the English department, and had taught for many years. A jovial, somewhat pompous man, Dr. S loved words, lots of words, big words, flowery words. He insisted that writing should have flair. He found my writing stilted, dull, and lacking in the verbosity he relished.  All my papers came back marked up in red ink with a cursory B for a grade.

Mrs. R asked for writing sample from each of us on the first day of class. Her psychology course required substantial amounts of writing and she wanted to see our writing abilities. She specifically instructed the class that anyone taking AP English from Dr. S should ignore his writing instruction. I had never heard a teacher criticize another teacher in that manner. But, I soon learned that Mrs. R didn't mince words. Mrs. R bluntly told me that she loved my writing sample. She found my writing crisp, direct, and focused.  Throughout her course I received little red ink on my papers and all A's for grades.

So who had a greater impact on my life:  Dr. D, Dr. S or Mrs. R? 

Actually, Dr. S did, but for reasons having nothing to do with his AP English course. I knew Dr. S long before I arrived in his class because his son and I were friends. I looked up to his son, one year older than me, the valedictorian for his graduating class, and the best chess player in any of the area high schools. I aspired to play chess as well as his son who graciously taught me about the game.  But more importantly he and his father introduced me to competitive tournament chess against adult competition.  Dr. S drove his son and me to chess tournaments on weekends and coached us on the rigors of playing serious high-level chess.

When I arrived at college I found instant acceptance by the group of chess players on campus. These upper class-men had previously taken many of the courses I found myself in and provided mentoring and support. The camaraderie I found through chess eased my transition to college.

Are Dr. D, Dr. S, and Mrs. R examples of highly qualified effective teachers that reformers
claim can transform schools?  I'll leave it to my readers to judge.  Like most of us, they had complex personalities that meshed with some people and conflicted with others. It would not be possible to characterize them with a list of attributes off a job description of the ideal teacher. 

I learned from my experiences with them that relationships matter and that all relationships are part of a complex web. There is no such thing as a relationship between two and only two people.  I also learned that the web of relationships often matter more
than the actual content of the courses.

Originally posted June 2011 The Daily Riff

Joseph Ganem, Ph.D.,
is a professor of physics at Loyola University, Maryland,
and author of the award- winning book on personal finance:
The Two Headed Quarter: How to See Through Deceptive Numbers
and Save Money on Everything You Buy

It shows how numbers fool consumers when they make financial decisions.

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