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By Mark Naison | with thanks to NewBlackMan


Tuesday, January 10, 2012.


I have been teaching for 45 years. My first students, in the Columbia Upward Bound Program, included a 15 year old who was destined for greatness and a 15 year old who wouldn’t say a word to me or his peers. Being able to connect to both of them, using very different methods, hooked me for life on the challenge of  building the confidence and trust required to make  learning possible among a diverse group of people.


It is precisely the importance of building trust which is absent from the dominant discourse about education today.  Achieving mastery of a fixed body of material is prioritized; opening minds, healing hearts, and building confidence are widely neglected as “soft” attributes not amenable to measurement and evaluation.


Che Guevara once said “ The true revolutionary is guided by feelings of great love.” I would say the same about teaching; “The true teacher is guided by feelings of great love.”


How do you measure love? How do you assess it?


Governments are now spending billions of dollars on complex mathematical formulas to rate teachers’ effectiveness.  Every single measure they have created circumvents the attributes that make teachers love their jobs and which influence students the most.


A great teacher gets inside a student’s head, becomes part of the student’s conscience; becomes a moral compass that may offer guidance ten, twenty years after the student was in their class.  Things the teacher said during a lecture, wrote in the margin of a research paper, whispered to the student in a private meeting,  may come up in the most unexpected times and places. Books, films and songs the teacher recommended may be ones passed on to friends, co-workers and children.


I am saying this from experience as well as inference.   I had teachers who inspired me to do things I never dreamed were possible.   They did this not only modeling a passion for learning in their lectures and the way they comported themselves, but by  letting me know that despite my rough edges and uneven writing stills,, there was nothing I couldn’t achieve as a scholar if I dared to give myself wholly to the subject I was investigating and kept trying to hone and refine my  prose style.


Those teachers—and I will name them because they are all worth honoring: Edward Said, Paul Noyes, Walter Metzger, James Shenton—provided me with a model of the teacher and scholar I wanted to be. They are with me every time I walk into a classroom.


How do you measure that?


I know so many great teachers and they are all filled with love for their students and love for their jobs.  Every single reform measure introduced in the last ten years is crushing and demoralizing them


Someday, we will realize that if we really want to instill a passion for learning in young people, we have to honor and support our best teachers and encourage our most talented and idealistic young people to be teachers for life.


And that means we have to leave room for intangibles like love and trust in how we judge what goes on in schools and understand that the results of great teaching are experienced over a life time, not by tests you administer three or four times a year.




Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham’s Urban Studies Program. He is the author of two books, Communists in Harlem During the Depression and White Boy: A Memoir. Naison is also co-director of the Bronx African American History Project (BAAHP). Research from the BAAHP will be published in a forthcoming collection of oral histories Before the Fires: An Oral History of African American Life From the 1930’s to the 1960’s.



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