Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Monty's Airport

When Grant, my second son, was a freshman in high school, he had a math teacher named Mr. Montgomery. Monty, as the kids called him, was from Australia. It was his first year teaching in the United States, perhaps his first year teaching anywhere. Grant and his pals, vicious little weakness-sensing animals that boys that age can be, spent most of the hour flying paper airplanes. They called the class “Monty’s Airport.” Midway through the term, poor Mr. Montgomery interrupted the daily lesson and, nearly in tears, said they were ruining his life. He fled to his homeland when the semester was over.

Didn't he look like an angel?
Grant and his fellow pilots also flew water balloons off the second floor balcony during class changes. There was an incident with a smoke bomb that, being uncertain of the applicable statute of limitations, I shall leave unreported. When he was a junior (a junior, mind you, the key year for getting into college), the school called me and said they suspected he was forging my signature on cut slips. I gave him a stack of real ones, signed by me, and told him to use them instead of the fakes. I said he could be stupid if he wanted to, but I wanted him to be honest about it.

He must not have cut all his high school classes, because he went on to Vanderbilt University. There he had a professor, Mr. Birkby, who changed his life (if I knew how, I’d tell you; I only know it happened and I had pretty much nothing to do with it). Grant graduated Summa Cum Laude (Phi Beta Kappa, too) and went to Harvard Business School. Let’s hear it for Professor Birkby.

So that’s what this is about: good teachers. But not from the angle you might think. Not “Blackboard Jungle” or “Freedom Writers” or “To Sir, with Love.” This is about how we can figure out who’s a Monty and who’s a Birkby. Kids can’t (won’t) learn if they don’t have good teachers.

The approach that is in fashion lately is one we have borrowed from business: performance metrics. One of the key metrics, the only one sometimes, it seems, is student test scores. As we all know, this leads to a good deal of teaching to the test---honestly, it’s what I would do if my job depended on it. The teachers who are judged best are the ones who can teach their students to score well on standardized tests.

As they say in business: you get what you measure. It’s something, anyway. And it is measurable. Indeed, being measurable may be the main thing that commends it. Before we started down this road, though, I don’t think many of us would have said that we are sending our kids to school in the hope that they will become good test takers.

What do we hope for their education? For me, the answer is not much more than giving them the itch of curiosity and providing them the tools to scratch it. It’s hard to remember anything particular you learn in school. It’s all a mishmash of facts and histories, of stories and theories. Education builds on itself the way the brain develops in childhood. Most of us can’t remember much that happened to us before a certain age, but we look back at the happy photos of childhood trips to the zoo and family picnics and know that our understanding of ourselves and others, of how we all fit together, was built up for us painstakingly and lovingly.

So, for me, tests are not the point. They aren’t exactly beside the point, but they certainly are not the primary goal of education.

A good teacher knows all this. She inspires her students to challenge assumptions, to look beyond conventional wisdom (after learning it first). She lights the fire in them that we all hope gets lit in our children. It’s a kind of magic, really.

And the only ones who know whether it is happening are…the kids. Not the principal. Not the school superintendent. Oh, they may have some idea, if they’re not too obsessed with test scores, but it’s not something they measure, so even if they appreciate it on some level, they can’t do much to reward or encourage it.

But you know what? It is measurable. The kids can tell us. All we have to do is ask them. Now, I understand that is a little tricky. I understand that a teacher can be popular without being “good.” Or maybe I don’t understand that. Something makes them popular, and this is school, so it must not be cake and ice cream.

I know from talking to my own children over the years that they know which teachers are good and which are bad. They suffer through the bad ones and have fun with the good ones. Good schools have more of the latter than the former, but it’s not entirely clear to me that they know why they do.

If we are careful about what we ask, the kids will tell us who should stay and who should go. I’m not saying we should turn the student council into the Emperor’s box at the Coliseum--up or down?--but student opinion should be an important part of the teacher performance matrix. The more we ask the kids, the better we’ll get at framing the questions, and the better they will get at answering them.

Until then, thanks, Professor Birkby. And Monty, I’m so sorry, but it’s a jungle out there.


  1. That was cool, Mac. Well said. I would like to share it if you don't mind. I am ready for your take on raising kids- the first batch and then the second. That blended family idea.

  2. Thanks, Emily. I'd be pleased and flattered for you to share.

  3. Don't know who your writing teacher was but s/he sure ignited something magical!
    I'd say this post is a must-read for every person in teaching profession. May I post it on my FB page?

  4. You're too kind, Manjri. Of course you may post it. That's the writer's dream: to be read.

  5. An interesting idea. I wonder if any school has tried it. And where do you begin, high school, middle school, 4th grade....? Lastly, how do you push this forward and not just let it die on the internet?

  6. I was a classmate of Grant's and was in Mr. Montgomery's math class with him at Prep (I found this blog on his Facebook page). I had forgotten that Mr. Montgomery didn't even finish out the year. I'm not sure why Prep struggled so to get decent math and science teachers for us in those important Junior High years (although I guess it is still hard to find good math and science teachers). But I know that it set me on a course to really struggle with those two subjects... subjects I had really enjoyed in elementary school. Did Grant have Mr. Tojidlo as well? I think I had him for pre-chemistry. The man could barely speak English, let alone teach us science.

    Many people like to say that girls aren't as good as boys when it comes to math and science, but I think teachers have so much to do with it.

  7. >Many people like to say that girls aren't as good as boys when it comes to math and science, but I think teachers have so much to do with it.

    And studies support what you think, B.J.