Does Helping a Student Add to My Value?

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Arthur Goldstein

“Thank you for calling my mom,” said my student, whom I will call Stephanie. I’ve been teaching 27 years, and no one had ever said such a thing. (Once a young woman greeted me with, “I am dead! That’s because my mother killed me last night!” That’s far more typical of the response I get from kids whose homes I have called.)

Three days before the February break, Stephanie was absent. I thought about calling her home each day, but when I had done so in the past, her mother had vouched that she was sick. This time, by the third day, I figured she must have gotten an early start on the break and gone somewhere or done something with her family. But when she didn't show up the day we returned to school, I picked up my phone.

My students love it when I make calls like these, because payback is sweet. “Hey, Mister, this is an English class! You have to speak English!” I’m doubly rewarded -- seeing they’ve learned something, and also reminding them of the dire fate awaiting anyone who dares forget my class.

Stephanie’s mother told me she was going to transfer her out of our high school. I asked why she wanted to do such a thing. Stephanie wasn’t doing well in school, she said. But she’s learning a lot of English, I told her, and she’s in a great school.

Everyone wants to be in this school, I told her. Why else would we be at 200 percent capacity? Why else would I be calling you from a trailer?

We live in Brooklyn, said the mom.

Did they have another school in mind? No. Had they signed her out? No. I told Mom I was referring this to Stephanie’s guidance counselor. The counselor told me Stephanie had recently transferred from another school.

The counselor had Stephanie's mother come in the following day. Stephanie was passing English, two classes of it, but social studies, math and science were problematic. It seemed like Stephanie’s problem had little to do with the school she was attending.

In any case, the next day she was back. You have never seen a kid so happy to be at school.

I spoke to her social studies teacher, who told me she had failed the first half, but actually had a good chance of passing for the year. Her other English teacher arranged for her to get out of doing community service, and into math tutoring one period a day.

During the break between my double-period class, one of my students helped Stephanie with algebra, explaining some concept to the point at which she said, “Oh, that’s what it is.” I gave the boy who helped her extra credit. I figure generosity of spirit ought to be rewarded.

I told the counselor we had done something really good this week. It’s not often you can get in the middle of something and make such an immediate difference. We didn’t have to do this, and none of us got paid extra for it -- but things like these, not merit pay, not test scores, make us love what we do.

Still, I have to wonder what would happen under the new paradigm in New York State and New York City. Before helping someone like Stephanie, we’d have to calculate what her chances of success would be. Would Stephanie help our value-added scores? Would Mom keep her home the day of the test? If she were on our registers, would that affect our ratings?

And why would the math teacher we found want to tutor anyone who wasn’t her student? Every moment she did that would be a moment she could be tutoring her own students and raising her value-added scores. If some other teacher received higher value-added scores than she did, she would not only look bad, but also run a very real risk of losing her job.

If the city and state want temporary teachers who care only about test scores, they’re doing the right thing. But if they want teachers who will follow up and actually care about the kids they teach, and kids in general, they will need to find a way other than tests to measure what teachers do.

If I were a principal, I’d encourage things like what we did to keep Stephanie in our school -- a place she enjoyed and where she was truly learning. But I’m not a principal, and given today’s educational environment, it’s quite clear to me why I will never be one.