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October 18, 2011

What Makes a Great Teacher?

I have no idea what kind of job Andrea McKenna does as a teacher at her middle school in Springdale, Ark.

I do know she’s just been picked as the only teacher in the state of Arkansas to receive a prized Milken Educator Award this year.

The award includes a cash stipend ($25,000) and is a big deal in American education, which needs all the attention it can get.

I have no idea what kind of job Andrea McKenna does as a teacher at her middle school in Springdale, Ark.

I do know she’s just been picked as the only teacher in the state of Arkansas to receive a prized Milken Educator Award this year.

The award includes a cash stipend ($25,000) and is a big deal in American education, which needs all the attention it can get.

I also know that Ms. McKenna must be a great teacher if she conducts her classes as eloquently and from-the-heart as she spoke when presented with about the highest honor an American teacher can receive.

It was quite an occasion at – and for – the J.O. Kelly Middle School when the surprise announcement was made. And I mean surprise. You could tell from her reaction. And everybody else’s.

The only thing the kids and teachers knew was that they were to attend a school assembly that morning to hear from some bigwigs – like the governor and the state’s commissioner of education. Supposedly in observance of the Month of the Young Adolescent. (Everybody and everything’s got a month these days.)

Then, out of the blue, the president of the National Institute for Excellence in Education headquartered in Santa Monica, Calif., got up and explained why he was there. It seems a man named Lowell Milkin with a family foundation thought the best educators in the country deserved recognition. Much the way actors get Oscars and Olympic athletes win gold medals.

And so Mr. Milken established an institute to present the Milken Awards to the best teachers in the country. They’re chosen after an extensive search and then an exhaustive winnowing process. Here in Arkansas, there were 16 nominations for the honor this year. The field was then narrowed to five finalists, and the people at the Milken Foundation settled on just one winner:

Andrea Morales McKenna.

When her name was announced, the school assembly erupted in cheers and tears for one of its own. No one seemed more stunned and tearful than the lady who teaches English as a second language to sixth and seventh graders at J.O. Kelly.

If courage is grace under pressure, sincerity may be grace when you’re suddenly hauled up before an assembly of your friends, fellow teachers, the press, leading public officials and your principal. And presented with the highest honor in your profession. Here is what Ms. McKenna said through her tears:

God is good.

Dreams come true.

I wasn’t the (most gifted and talented) student in my school.

I wasn’t the best athlete of the year.

I wasn’t asked to prom.

I want to tell you that this is such an awesome experience to just be a teacher and to love you and to let you know that dreams come true.

Who wouldn’t want to have such a teacher? Or, even better, to have her teach your child? For all of us want our children to be better than we are. And to be the best they can be, they need the best of teachers.

But a great award does not a great teacher make.

What then does make a great teacher?

Years ago I asked somebody who ought to be know – an economist turned educational analyst who’d spent years studying how to improve American education.

Eric Hanushek is a professor of education at Stanford and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution there. If anybody ought to know the answer to that question, he’s the one. When I asked him, his response was direct, concise, honest and just about the best I’ve ever heard on the topic. It’s stayed with me ever since.

What makes a great teacher?

“We don’t know,” said the professor.

But you know what a great teacher is when you’ve been lucky enough to have had one.

* * *

Great teachers may have different backgrounds, approaches and specialties. Each may be one of a kind. But they all share that common quality we have no better word for than – greatness.

What makes a great teacher? You might as well ask what makes a great artist.

Maybe they’re just born. If so, they have to be born again by dint of effort, dedication and/or genius.

Everybody’s got a favorite theory about teaching, especially if he’s never taught a day in his life. Theories about teaching abound; those who excel at it are rare.

Most of us know that the teacher is all-important in education – and the great ones are unique. What they supply can’t be delivered by an impersonal system you work out on a spreadsheet. It’s got to be a product of the chemistry between teacher and taught.

Maybe the secret ingredient is love. Martin Luther King Jr. said you couldn’t teach anybody anything if you didn’t love ‘em first.

Sure, you can teach somebody a superficial technique or mechanical calculation without any great involvement with the student, but without that indefinable something, you can’t make it part of their core, their inner being, the way they think and feel and act and go through life. For that, you need a great teacher.

* * *

Give schools great teachers and they will be great schools. It’s a simple as that – and as complicated.

Want to fix American education? Give us more unique Andrea McKennas, not fill-in-the-blank, one-size-fits-all systems. How many fads have we seen come and go in education, from self-esteem to Cultural Literacy to multiculturalism to … well, who can keep count? But personnel is performance – good, bad or great.

* * *

Great people make a great difference. And that truth applies to more than education:

Want to fix the American economy? Give us more Steve Jobses and Thomas Edisons, not quick fixes like Quantitative Easing or Short-Term Stimulus, another Jobs Bill or 9-9-9, or whatever the next economic panacea will be.

Want to spur American finance and philanthropy? Give us more George Peabodys and J.P. Morgans.

Want to fix American politics? Give us great politicians. Give us more Franklin D. Roosevelts and Ronald Reagans with their wholly different programs but same idealism. Maybe that’s why both spoke the same language: hope.

Want to fix American business? Give us another Sam Walton.

Want to fix our cities? Find us another Daniel Burnham to plan them, and the City Beautiful will take shape.

Want to make baseball the National Pastime once again? Give us another Joe Dimaggio or Satchel Paige. They were wholly different on and off the field, but each was distinctive.

Want to fix American statecraft, banking, public finance? Just give us another Alexander Hamilton.

* * *

Yes, it’s a romantic notion, the idea that greatness cannot be just be rolled off some assembly line, that it’s more a matter of individual genius and talent and character than the product of any system.

Just what is greatness? How does it come about? It’s a mystery. Call it an act of grace. Unlikely as it may seem to doubters, God is good, and dreams come true.


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