Learning from the Best Teachers

For me personally, one of the greatest joys of having been a teacher for many years is the continuing relationships I have with former students. Discovering how they are making their way in the world and getting to know them as adults and peers is a gift. It also pleases me enormously that so many of my former students have chosen to teach. Some have left the classroom, but others are still phenomenally engaged.

Even as I struggle with the current teacher shortage and an inadequate teacher pipeline, I find hope in the passion and commitment of some teachers currently in the classroom. I recently got to talk to one of those teachers, my student almost twenty-five years ago, and his remarks inspired confidence in me once again. So I’d like to share some of them here.

Marc Nelson teaches art to 4th through 8th graders in Kewanee, Illinois, a district where 80% of students receive free lunch. His lovely wife, Jill Bartelt, teaches reading and math there. I remember his phenomenal artwork and his passion for literature in high school, including his I-Search paper on Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Like me, Marc was inspired to become a teacher when a fourth-grade teacher invited him to teach his sister’s first grade class about his passion for Knights. Just as I fell in love with teaching as a sixth-grader when I read to my first-grade teacher’s children, Marc, too, was captivated by teaching. He initially thought he would teach history at the college level, but his love for literature and an amazing Shakespeare professor at Augustana inspired him to unite his passions through his art.

Because I follow Marc on Facebook, I have seen first-hand the way he incorporates other fields in his classroom. His kids don’t get to museums and art galleries, and they live in a more rural environment, but Marc introduces them to art and artists they would otherwise never meet. He involves them in projects that extend well beyond the classroom.

I asked what has been most satisfying about teaching for him. Marc spoke of a great administration and the amount of freedom and support they offer him. Every year he gets to try new projects and align classroom work with content area teachers. For example, when social studies classes are exploring the Great Depression, that becomes the focus in his art class. He says, “There are seemingly endless opportunities and ways to teach certain things.” He used available stop-motion equipment so his 7th and 8th graders could create a film together based on a true incident. His students often brainstorm a list of subjects they’re interested in and try to marry two of them. They’ve combined Covid and WW II, and the Ukraine in general and the Holocaust in Eastern Europe with mass graves that weren’t found until the 1990s. That’s the crux of why he loves this job so much – “It never gets old.”

When I asked about frustrations, he acknowledged a real drop in base knowledge of the average student and in maturity levels. Since the pandemic, behavior and attendance are bigger issues. Marc claims he’s pretty easy-going, so sometimes students test his limits. Yet Marc retains remarkable enthusiasm.

Marc’s experience in Americorps took him to numerous public schools where he saw vitality and energy. He chose to teach public school instead of college and likes that middle school and high school students aren’t yet fully formed. He found subbing at the local junior college art class quiet and less dynamic. The joy of discovery that his younger students find delights and surprises him. He engages them in community projects. “The work goes beyond the walls of the school, and the kids get so excited!”

Marc has avoided some of the parent interactions and interference that have been the bane of existence for other teachers. In addition to his administrative support, he tries to anticipate parent issues and come up with appropriate responses. He has had parents question some of his projects, but thoughtful discussion resolved those issues.

I admire Marc’s use of his art outside the classroom as well. He has mounted shows of his drawings of oppressed people in Syria, Israel, and Gaza. His students see him walk his talk about going out into the world, and that must inspire them. You can explore his work at www.marcnelsonart.com.

I also asked about advice for new teachers. Marc said, “Invest yourself in whatever you’re teaching, find a way that it’s fascinating to you which will help you ‘deliver’ it effectively.” He also urges parents to use their time with their kids to foster interests and raise a consummate, lifelong learner. They should ask their students about their passions and learning, build on that, read them books and take them places, and support the current instruction at home. He urges the public: “Do not give lip service to the importance of children but then hamstring teachers. Back up that importance with support for teachers and the schools. Attend events, go to fundraisers.” Too many people seem to think that public school teachers are just servants who are not worthy of respect.

Marc respects his students: “They’re so much more capable of remarkable things than I gave them credit for before I knew them.”  He likes responding to what’s happening with artists and what’s happening in the world. He gets them to engage with the times we’re living in and tells them, “When you walk through this door, you’re an artist and this is your studio.”

In a perfect world, Marc he would love to have more world-based projects – for all classes. He agrees that better pay and more respect for teachers are overdue. The workload remains arduous, but Marc avoids burnout by doing what he’s passionate about. He appreciates the freedom not to be bogged down testing and grading tests, and he values the support he gets (and gives).

Clearly there aren’t enough Marc Nelsons to go around – don’t we wish we could clone teachers like him? But he offers clear guidelines on how we all can help other teachers be their best selves:

  • Good teachers who are meeting standards need the freedom to design how they get there.
  • Students deserve projects and experiences that take them beyond the walls of the classroom.
  • Teachers need to support and encourage each other. Administrators, parents, and community members need to support good teachers.
  • When teachers can find a point of passion in their subject, they transmit that passion. The curriculum needs to be flexible enough to let them find those passions.

These are not “pie-in-the-sky” goals. They are achievable and worthwhile. Aren’t our kids worth it?

Charter Schools: Yay or Nay?

Image by Adam Lapuník

As an educator, I have complicated feelings about charter schools. I am committed to a public school system that serves all of our children, and I do worry that charters siphon off students who might help lead classrooms if they stayed in public school. On the other hand, the inertia of our school system makes change very challenging to accomplish. Unlike parochial schools and other private schools, charter schools are public schools funded by state and federal governments; they’re free to attend and open to the public. Depending on the state they’re in and their particular charter, however, they do not share all the constraints of traditional public schools. Charter schools have a level of freedom that’s valuable.

It’s been 35 years since Albert Shanker, then president of the American Federation of Teachers, first suggested charter schools, and 31 years since the first charter school opened in St. Paul, Minnesota.(charterschoolcenter.ed.gov) Now over 7,000 charter schools in North America have more than 3 million students enrolled. (chalkbeat.org)

Chris Drew, PhD known as “The Helpful Professor,” identifies potential strengths of charter schools that are not as tied to state regulations, such as innovative and effective teaching, methods, a sense of community, and specialization in specific curricular areas. He warns, though, that charter schools vary by state, vary in quality, may have high teacher turnover rates, and often depend on fundraising. (helpfulprofessor.com)

According to Psyche Pascual of GreatSchools.org, charters are like public schools in that they administer the same state-mandated standardized tests; don’t charge tuition; can’t discriminate by race, sex, or disability in their enrollment; and are accountable to the city, state, county, or district that granted their charter. They can organize staff differently, however, and they may be run by a non-profit or a for-profit organization. They may have a founding educational philosophy like Waldorf or Montessori, but they may not. Nor are they always limited to hiring teachers with credentials. Many charters were founded by a group of committed parents or community members, and they often require parental involvement. (greatschools.org)

Current research suggests that charter schools are clearly gaining on public schools in terms of student achievement. In a recent landmark study, researchers at Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which studies charter schools, found that Black and Hispanic

charter school students advanced more than their counterparts in traditional public schools “by large margins” in math and reading. The study also found stronger “academic growth” among charter school students living in poverty and English-language learners, compared with similar students at traditional public schools. (usnews.com)

The Stanford 2023 report shows that, in the 15 years since their 2009 study, public school performance remained relatively flat, while students enrolled in charter schools showed large, positive growth. Over the 15 years between the studies, the reading growth of students in charter schools rose by 23 days of learning each year and student learning in math increased by 37 days of learning each year. (ncss3.stanford.edu)

The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research used multiple factors beyond test scores to evaluate Chicago charter high schools. Although their students had a higher turnover rate than those in public schools (which is typical of charter schools), they still outperformed their public equivalents. Charter students appear to benefit from certain advantages over public schools: a collegial sense of responsibility and trust, higher expectations for moving up a grade and for college attendance, and greater parental involvement. (chalkbeat.org)

The charter school population continues to grow as well. Since the pandemic, 1.5 million students have left public schools, while enrollment at public charter schools grew by more than 300,000 students between 2019-20 and 2022-23, a 9% increase.  The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools 2022 annual enrollment report identified multiple factors valued by parents: higher-quality instruction (54%), smaller school and class sizes (47%), and better safety (47%) than district schools. (the74million.org)

Research on return on investment is especially compelling. Researchers from the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform compared funding with performance data from the National Assessment of Education Progress and research findings from the CREDO Institute at Stanford University. They found significantly higher gains in charter schools compared to their public counterpoints: in reading, charters average 4.4 NAEP points higher per $1,000 spent than traditional public schools, making charter schools 41% more cost-effective in reading; in math, charters average 4.7 points higher per $1,000 funded, making them 43% more cost-effective in math. On average, each dollar invested in a student’s schooling in traditional public schools yields $3.94 in lifetime earnings. That same dollar invested in a charter school student yields $6.25 in lifetime earnings — a 58% higher return on investment over the course of a 13-year education. (bpb-us-e1.wpmucdn.com)

The varied success rates of charter schools mirror the varied success rates of public schools, so their biggest advantage may well be the choice that parents and students get. Research confirms however, that charter school students are gaining an advantage over their public school peers. As an educator, surely I should be convinced to support charters. I have a grandchild in San Francisco who will benefit from school choice. Does that make me squirm? A bit… I do wish that public schools could have some of the flexibility available to charter schools, which might allow them to see equally fine results. If and when that happens, I will remain an avid supporter of public schools. In the meantime, however, I acknowledge the advantage of choice for so many of our students.