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Sunday, Aug 31, 2014
South Tampa News

O’Neill: Schools need to recruit teachers with top potential


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The signs were more than manifest: The tax-free holidays. The inevitable approach of Labor Day. Families scrambling for that August minigetaway. The lingering, sub-Sahara humidity. Indeed, it’s back-to-school time.

Timeless traditions and rites of passage kick in. The anticipation of new classmates, new teachers, new students, new beginnings.

Also on today’s educational agenda: familiar, loaded buzzwords and daunting, even polarizing, issues. Accountability, however defined. Common Core. Virtual lessons. Increased standardized testing. STEM-winding curricula. Teacher evaluations. A to F schools. Private-sector charters. And more.

What’s Enlightenment to some is the Knave New World of education to others. These are the times we are living through — and coping with. Remember the debates over word recognition vs. phonics, the putative value of “rote” memorization and the rationale for “new math”? How yesteryear. How quaint. How long we’ve been around!

But back to now.

Here’s another issue around which sides are squaring off. What makes a great teacher? Call it the pedagogical version of nurture-vs-nature.

Recently an opinion piece by a couple of well-credentialed academicians — David R. Colburn, the director of the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida, and Brian Dassler, chief academic officer for the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts — has been making the rounds of editorial pages. Its stated intent: to demythologize the assertion that great teachers are born. They posit: “One of today’s persistent myths about education is that great teaching is innate. In other words, you either have it or you don’t.”

That’s a simplistic, zero-sum rendering of the other side’s argument. It’s also a rhetorical opening for the authors to salute the findings of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Measuring Effective Teaching project, which focuses on ways to improve teacher performance — and then certifiably prove it.

I’m that other side. I taught secondary public school for 10 years. This is the reality.

Nobody is born a great teacher. Of course not. But potentially great teachers have certain baseline traits in common. By their very nature, they can’t be learned from evaluator feedback or video cram-sessions. But they form the foundation that greatness demands — in tandem with an ethic that promotes a continuous desire for improvement. Such teachers:

• Have a personality that is part stage presence, part missionary zeal, part natural leader. They command — not demand — respect.

• Have a sense of humor. Kids require it. Funny-but-pertinent analogies work. A sense of self-deprecation helps. But, no, students are not fooled by silly, even if they seem to be.

• Are creative and spontaneous. They can relate to the culture and technology around them — without being gimmicky. Maybe there’s a gene, but it’s nothing a mentor — even a creative and spontaneous one — can evoke.

• Consider teaching a calling, not a job. They genuinely like working with kids, and it shows. They are not looking to start taking administration courses at the University of South Florida a couple years removed from undergraduate work.

• Have a work ethic that maximizes class preparation and quick feedback.

But even more pertinent, such a work ethic is what motivates them to get better in the ways that the Gates’ project stresses — for example, the art of posing questions “in order to elicit student thinking and engagement.” No one, including attorneys, is born with such interrogatory skills.

Yes, great teachers are born with certain innate traits, but those alone don’t guarantee greatness. But absent those traits, greatness will remain unrealized. This is no rationale to back off serious investment in teacher training. But it is a reminder of how important recruiting is — as well as what the starting point of those recruits is. Every teacher can be better. Not all can be great.

Maddon and immigration

Joe Maddon gets a lot of well-earned plaudits for deftly guiding his over-achieving, under-payrolled Tampa Bay Rays into yet another late-season playoff run. He’s also witty, creative, quirky and fun to be around. But if you’re from his hometown of Hazleton, Pa., you also know him as the guy who is leading the charge to unify Hazleton and save it from the divisive Hispanic-Anglo cultural chasm that has surfaced in the last decade.

So, given that Hazleton once passed the (eventually overturned) notorious Illegal Immigration Relief Act, has Maddon ever considered getting politically active on the subject of immigration? Anybody, say, reaching out for an endorsement?

Just askin’.

“I’m not apolitical,” concedes Maddon. “But I don’t see this as a Democratic or Republican issue. I try to look at both sides. I’m not qualified legally. I acknowledge that. But the reality is this: People are here. Are they ‘illegal people’ or is this an ‘illegal process’?”

No, he’s not apolitical.

Peaceful RNC

We now have some official economic-impact numbers from the 2012 Republican National Convention to ponder. According to the study done by University of Tampa economist Brian T. Kench, the GOP gathering pumped some $214 million directly into the Tampa Bay economy and more than $400 million indirectly. Those numbers, of course, can be further parsed for spin and context.

But here’s what really matters about Tampa’s moment on that mega-international stage: The biggest plus is that there was no big minus. No Hurricane Isaac, no reputation-bludgeoning riot, no terrorist attack. It’s likely that Mayor Bob Buckhorn is still audibly exhaling in relief.

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