Mr. Stamford

Copyright (c) 2001 by Kenny Felder

I think this is the commentary that first got me onto WUNC. The stories are absolutely true, with the names changed.

Mr. Stamford was my 7th grade math teacher. He was head of the math department at my junior high school. And it came as a very deep shock to me to realize that he didn't know math.

You have to understand that I was just not ready for this. I was a teacher's pet. When I got a different answer from Mr. Stamford's, I raised my hand dutifully and asked why I had gotten it wrong. His answer was so far over my head that I just couldn't make sense of it. So that night, when I came home, I asked my parents. They assured me that my answer was right: the teacher had gotten it wrong. A fluke, I thought.

But the next week, the same thing happened. I got an answer which was different from Mr. Stamford's. I asked about it, and he explained why I was wrong. I didn't get it, and he kept explaining until I finally stopped asking. Only once again, I was right and Mr. Stamford was wrong. His explanations weren't "over my head." They were complete nonsense.

It was months before I figured out how to deal with Mr. Stamford. If he got something wrong, I would wait until all the other kids had left the class and then I would show him his mistake. The next day he would say to the class, "I was looking at this problem again last night, and I happened to notice that..." blah blah quack quack. He could understand the correction. He could admit his mistake. But he could not back down publicly in front of a 7th grader.

Looking back, I have to say that Mr. Stamford did me a favor. He took teachers off their pedestal, and helped me grow up a little. But if the circumstances had been just a bit different—if I hadn't thought of asking my parents, or if they hadn't known the math, or if I had been just a little more insecure—I would have decided that I just don't understand math, and maybe believed that for the rest of my life. Never underestimate the impact that one teacher can have.

My friend Alice could easily have had an equally strong impact on many students in the other direction. Alice and I went to college together. She went on to get her Ph.D. in Physics, and is now a leading researcher in her field. But she's always wanted to teach and she would make an excellent teacher. Last year she seriously considered applying to the high school where I teach now. But she has three kids, her husband is a stay-at-home father, and moving from an industry job to a teaching job would have involved a pay cut of about $30,000/year. So, Alice is still in industry, and the world has probably lost a great teacher.

So why am I telling you all this?

Public education is a hot topic today. Everyone agrees that it's broken and needs to be fixed. Personally, I believe that the most important piece of the education puzzle is the teacher. Put an excellent teacher in an old-fashioned classroom with twenty-year-old books and inadequate supplies, and the students will get a good education. Put a terrible teacher in a fancy modern classroom with next year's textbooks and state-of-the-art electronics, and they will get nothing.

Most people recognize the truth of these statements. But they hesitate when I take this thought to its logical conclusion. If teachers are the key to a good education, then we can't fix education by adding more computers or tweaking the dress codes. We have to take two very difficult steps.

First, pay teachers like the professionals they are. Make salaries competitive so that Alice, and others like her, can seriously consider teaching as an option.

But wait—now we're paying the Mr. Stamfords of the world much more than they're worth, right? Which leads me to the second step:

Fire Mr. Stamford. Identify all the teachers who can't teach, and get rid of them.

That's it. Two steps to a better education for the country: attract good teachers, and fire the bad ones. But it isn't happening. The Democrats propose more money (with no accountability), and the Republicans propose more accountability (with no money). And both sides court voters by paying lip service to the idea that our top priority, as a nation, is educating our children.

When I first aired this commentary on WUNC, in June 2001, I felt like a lone voice in the wilderness. Suddenly, eight years later, I started seeing this issue discussed everywhere. So if you're interested in these issues, here are some things you may want to check out...


From: Michelle Williams
August 10, 2008

On the phone w/my sister now. She enjoyed this essay very much and didn't clue in it was you that wrote it until just this second when I pointed it out. She says I should tell you that :-) She's loved them all, but this one in particular.

She had a similar experience w/ a high-school history teacher.

From: Kenny Felder
August 11, 2008

I'll bet if someone created a Web page where people could just post their high school teacher horror stories, it would be packed.

From: Gary Felder
August 24, 2008

It's all well and good to say that we should have more accountability, but the question is how do you define a good teacher? No Child Left Behind defines it primarily in terms of the average scores of the teacher's students on standardized tests. Is that the right measure? How can you fairly account for the different populations in different classes? Does that open the door to "teaching to the test," and is that necessarily a bad thing? Who should design those tests? Should we most highly value teachers who pull up the weaker students or ones who challenge the stronger students? I agree with your general principles as starting points, but as always the devil is in the details. Along similar lines, in the charter school article you say that we should fix or shut down charter schools that are doing a bad job. By what criteria?

From: Kenny Felder
September 1, 2008

All fair questions, but impossible to ask in a world in which teachers have a "we can't fire you unless you mug somebody" contract.

From: Alexis Ward
October 14, 2009

I think the criteria would be to make the teachers pass the same test they propose to give their students. Mr. Stamford would have failed it. I think most teachers have taught subjects so long they have developed a "patina" of actual knowledge. They have lost some of the basics IMO.

From: Mark Minie
March 14, 2010

Given the state of things, I think we need to fire everyone...Bank CEOs, Doctors, Lawyers, Politicos, Teachers...everyone and start over with a clean sheet of paper and go step-by-step...which will be very hard to do in ensuing chaos...but it should be fun to get into survivalist mode and with the collapse of agriculture and industry and the over abundance of guns and amo, we won't have worry much longer about how the Earth will support a human population of 7 billion or so...

And of course, the eternal question—who fires the firers?

From: Arya Sundaram
September 16, 2013

I think it's really interesting that, as a teacher you encourage accountability.

(This might be totally digressing, but I feel like tenure and accountability are pretty related, although someone could view them differently) The way someone pointed it out to me was to imagine a corporate executive given tenure—there's no reason to innovate, no motivation to want to do better. Yes, a lot of reason people teach is because they honestly love what they do, but I feel like fiscal benefits make a difference.

But, I recently read an article re-posted by a teacher I know about why merit-pay for teachers makes no sense. It particularly calls into question what makes a teacher "better" and how to evaluate that—and while I completely agree with you on accountability, the whole idea of evaluating that accountability seems really tricky. Standardized tests, like we talked about in Systems Theory, aren't an accurate measure because

a) some students brains aren't wired to take certain tests or even tests at all

b) how do you compare a teacher in an underprivileged area with a teacher in a higher socioeconomic status area? There are so many factors that could affect respectively lower and higher scores here like the family's income, access to resources, different community setting (urban vs rural), etc. which wouldn't be showing the teachers' abilities but rather the differences in students demographics. And then how do you say a teacher is bad based upon that?

(Ultimately what these arguments are saying is that standardized testing evaluates the students' abilities and not teachers)

But let's say the state evaluated teachers by having a person evaluate each classroom—I can only imagine the kind of money that would entail to get an accurate read on each teacher in each class.

But then maybe we don't leave it up to the state and maybe instead give more power to school administrators. But how do we make sure that school administrators are capable enough to evaluate teachers? I happen to like this option best, but then again how does the administrator evaluate teachers? I read an article somewhere about a school in Russia where the teachers and administrators get together and evaluate each others' lessons (all of which are taped); they offer advice on how to do something better, get advice from other teachers, etc. I really like this idea—but then again at what point do decide the teacher just cannot improve and it's time to fire them? It's important to foster this sense of community, but where does that line end? Also, it makes me wonder kind of detrimental effects firing teachers based on ability could have on the teachers' community as a whole—it might become more competitive.

And now, to switch gears a bit, I would love to see teachers get paid more because I feel like so many capable people are drawn away from the teaching profession, but the question must always be—where does the money come from? This is a really big question for me because sometimes I feel like maybe it's so important to have good teachers because then it will provide more equal opportunity and affect job growths positively and be worth that huge amount of money needed to make the teaching profession a viable option, but I still need to find more hard evidence to support that claim. And then this opens up a whole other question of if teaching is best in the public sphere—specifically because of this whole funding concern.

Sorry if this was just a lot of questions thrown at you—I completely don't expect you to answer all of them, I just wanted to see maybe what your opinions are on some of these things as the real-life solutions to these problems are really important to me!

From: Kenny Felder
September 17, 2013

You're asking exactly the right questions, Arya! If someone decided to implement the "Felder plan for saving the schools" those are exactly the issues that would have to be sorted out.

Teachers are always quick to point out that there is no guaranteed, objective way to evaluate how good a teacher is. Therefore they conclude that we simply shouldn't do it, or at least that we shouldn't make anything important (such as salary or firing) depend on it. In doing so, they put themselves in a strange and sacred class of people that seems to include only them. Every employee of a company is judged by his manager in an imperfect and subjective way, and based on those judgments he is given a raise or not, fired or not. Perhaps more ironically, every student in every school is judged by his teachers in an imperfect and subjective way, and based on those judgments he gets grades that send him to a good college or not. Is judging teachers really so much harder? At RCHS I serve at the pleasure of the principal. If he wants to let me go, he can do so any time; and he has done so, many times, to bad teachers. This is one of the reasons we are a good school.

So to carry the analogy a bit further...the employees are judged by managers who are judged by higher-level managers who are judged by the CEO. The CEO himself is judged by the success of the company and by the board. So let's let the principal judge the teachers, and let the principal be judged by the board and by the parents. And let's acknowledge up front that this system will not be perfect, and some bad teachers will get raises and some good teachers will get fired, without using that as an excuse to say "We'll just abandon all attempts to judge quality."

In terms of the funding, what can I say? I'm a shameless liberal about this issue (and a few others). I think it's worth the taxpayer's dollars to improve our schools, if we can spend the money in a way that really goes to the teachers. We spend money on a lot of worse things.

Again, you do not have to apologize for asking questions, especially since you're asking such great ones. I hope my answers make sense!

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