Lessons to be learned

Thursday, November 3, 2005

Parents, you by now have a head swimming with grade-point averages, data from Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and all the other tests, and the headlines created by No Child Left Behind attempts to rate the local schools.

You have absorbed graphs and pie charts and columns of numbers seeking to break down how and what your child is being taught. Or at least taught toward taking tests.

It is all important, too, as you no doubt surmised from recent midterm conferences. (Not to mention looming college tuitions).

And yet, test-taking is not all there is. Numbers do not tell the whole story. Not by a long shot.

No President, no state government, no Board of Really Important People will ever be able to truly measure what makes a great teacher, and no test will ever reflect it.

You see, there's a problem. Empirical data does not take into account magic.

Magic? I know you stopped believing in the stuff years ago. But tell me, is there any other way to explain it when a child who feels like he doesn't belong in the class is suddenly switched on to learning like a light bulb? When a girl who could barely read suddenly can't wait to read a new book? When they fall in love with nature? Show mom and dad some nuance to a high-tech computer? When a kid who was scared of her own shadow is suddenly making beautiful music in a school band or shining on stage in the school musical? Or a kid with two left feet suddenly can't wait for basketball practice?

Yeah, magic. It can't be taught in the finest of universities of education. No amount of money can purchase it for a school. And it might not show up in those No Child Left Behind ratings at all.

But a kid knows it when they encounter it. It will be the teacher whose name they will remember 50 years later, with a smile.

It will be the one who the other teachers whisper about. "She isn't following the lesson plan. What is he doing - that isn't in the textbook! Why are children laughing in there??"

It is rare, but it is here. It is the teacher who can turn a class into a Mexican marketplace in an hour for a geography lesson. One who knows how to find a chipmunk or a bat in the park.

One who never gives up on a child, no matter if everyone else has.

One who teaches more than a subject, but life. We have them here.

This is a true story that I love well.

It was early in a school year, in a particularly challenging class. The teacher handed out a pop quiz. It wasn't so hard, and the students had been taught well. They breezed through, to the final question.

"What," it said, "is the first name of the gentleman who cleans this school?"

The students thought it had to be some kind of joke. They had all seen the older man who swept the halls and cleaned the bathrooms, always in the background, and seldom spoken to or even acknowledged. Maybe some had even made fun of him.

Just before class ended, one of the students demanded to know if the last question was going to count toward their semester grade.

"Absolutely," the teacher said. "In your lives, you will have the opportunity to meet many people... all of them significant. Every one of them deserve your attention and care, even if all you do is say "hello" and smile.

Every student's grade went down just a little that day. If you looked at the data, it would appear that the teacher had failed.

And yet, ever student in that class learned a lesson that day that would be far more important than anything else on that quiz.

You may want to remember it yourself.

And our janitor's name, by the way, I learned, was Hank.

If you met such a teacher at your child's conference, shake their hand, thank them for being the treasures that they are, and hope a little of the magic rubs off.


The Storm Lake City Council has put on the brakes a bit, and decided to interview Patti Moore for the vacant city administrator job before hiring a headhunter to go search for some up-and-comer in the administration field.

Standard practice is for such administrators to start in a small city, and move every few years, up the supposed ladder to bigger and bigger cities and paydays. The standard is to hire a specialist company to try to land the pick of the litter, at least for a while.

Storm Lake isn't your usual city, and it needn't do anything by that book.

I'm proud of the council for taking the time to look within instead.

Patti Moore has been an exceptional resource in city hall for many years, and has pulled it through lost administrators three times. She is both professional and warm, and personally, I've never come to her with a question she could not find an answer for. If she is willing to take on such a headache, she should certainly be first in line for consideration.

Storm Lake city hall is blessed with a number of good leaders - Justin Yarosevich, Mike Wilson, Scott Oleson, Pat Kelly, Mark Prosser and more. Because of their skills, we are not forced to rush into a search for a new front person.

Inside, we have the potential for some good candidates for the job, if they wish to be. Or, perhaps the ability to try something new, such as a dividing the job into an administrative team in which each person could bring true expertise in their field.

An outside search is not wrong, and hiring a headhunting firm is not a bad move.

But looking within first, at the people who know and love the city well, is a pretty smart idea, too.