Silent voice in school reform

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Helen Blackledge died the other day at the age of 107. She was one of those truly good people who deserved a long life.

Helen was also a terrific educator. Oh, I don’t know that the students in the school she headed blew away the test scores. Probably not.

After all, Southern Heights, on Fort Wayne’s southeast side, served a lot of poor and minority students as well as middle-class white students such as my daughter Robyn.

What made Helen a great educator wouldn’t have been test scores. It’s that she provided her staff with a role model on how to treat kids. How could I forget that when Robyn was already reading in kindergarten, Helen simply put her in a first-grade reading group for the rest of the school year?

As a frequent visitor to the school, I had a chance to see Helen talking with staff and with students. She would ask questions of the staff, rather than merely give directives. With students, Helen would get down on the child’s level.

I recall how she would ask a student to explain his or her drawing or painting. She would draw the student out. “Tell me about this picture,” she’d say. She didn’t belittle the child’s work. Nor did she even offer an evaluation, good or bad, only encouragement.

It’s odd that state lawmakers and other leaders don’t mention the Helen Blackledges in the schools. Our political leaders seem to think that if standardized test scores are rising the schools are doing their job.

Where’s the search for the Helen Blackledges of the world? Or the Roberta Zeskys? She was my 5th grade teacher who traded names with me in the Christmas gift exchange. At first, I drew the name of a girl who that year was not popular. I was quite distressed about it. But Mrs. Zesky told me that she needed a name herself and could she please have the name of the girl I drew. I got the teacher’s name. Now that made me feel pretty special.

I recall my high school English teacher Bill Applegate whose presentation of Julius Caesar was so lively that it made me a life-long fan of Shakespeare. At another high school, another English teacher, Marilyn Mouser, whose physician father had delivered me, teased us with Jack London’s great stories. I’ll never forget “The Call of the Wild.”

Or my physics teacher, George Schlenker, who managed to make a subject that before I had little interest in seem fascinating. It seemed I always was writing up experiments and loving the challenge. Today, with a bit more physics in college, I enjoy reading the articles in Scientific American.

My point is simple. Quality education is a whole lot more than standardized test scores or graduation rates. How do we enlist such gifted math teachers as my crusty junior high math teacher, R.T. Fallon? Or my American history teacher Max Jecowitz who inspired me to memorize the Gettysburg Address? Where’s the next generation of teachers who challenge students to question their own answers, even to question their teachers’ answers?

I wonder about today’s college student thinking about a teaching career. What does that person conclude about the debates on school reform in the General Assembly? No talk of enticing the best and brightest into the classroom. No talk of making teacher salaries comparable to those of engineers or medical specialists. Forget reducing class size.

Has anyone surveyed retiring teachers to discover why they quit early to draw a retirement salary? My own friends, retired teachers, will say that it no longer was fun. The reason I’ve often heard is education had become all about raising test scores.

It’s been a long time since I saw Helen Blackledge at a concert. I don’t recall any discussions with her about the state of education. But I can guess what she thought about anything claiming to be reform that didn’t put the most capable, caring teachers in the classroom. I’m sure, too, that for her nothing was worthy of the name of reform that didn’t make the well-being of the child at the top of the agenda.

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