The Influence of Teachers

Teachers can never declare “Missions Accomplished,” because they are a bridge, not an endpoint, for all the boys and girls (and men and women) who come into their lives . . . . the teacher’s job is to help students build a self, to create the entity that will be constant company for life. That’s why the best teachers listen to students and draw out their thinking, but don’t try to solve every problem. That’s why the best teachers empathize and care deeply about students as individuals, but never lower standards or expectations.

The words above appear on p. 21 of a new book by John Merrow, who is probably best known as the correspondent on education for The PBS News Hour. The full title of the book is The Influence of Teachers: Reflections on Teaching and Leadership. Merrow comes to this book with more than four decades of commitment to and interest in education: when he could not serve in the Peace Corp for physical reasons, he spent two years teaching high school, later taught at a traditional black college in Virginia while teaching evenings in the local penitentiary. Along the way he obtained a doctorate in education from Harvard and has served on the board of Teachers College Columbia, He has covered education for PBS and NPR since 1974.

As a teacher and as one involved in education I found the book well worth the time spent reading and pondering it. I invite you to explore it with me further.

Merrow, who is devoting all proceed of this book to Learning Matters, the production company he heads which actually published the book. Learning Matters was founded in 1995, and is an independent, non-profit, 501(c)(3) production company focused on education.

The book begins with a brief preface titled “Fighting the Last War,” which is followed by the preface. The bulk of the book is in two main sections. The first, Follow the Teacher, has 8 chapters including such subjects as evaluation, pay, training, retention, recruitment, and tenure. The second, Follow the Leader, has six chapters focusing on issues beyond the scope of individual teachers, such as Charter Schools, school safety, the revolving door of school and system leadership, and turnaround specialists. This examination is important because how a teacher functions is often a product of forces beyond her control, such as the context in which she teaches.

Merrow ends with a brief conclusion, about which I will offer more later, but which I will note now was for me the heart of the book.

Teaching is, and should be, a reflective process. In that sense this book is the product of a teacher’s mind, even if Merrow has not himself for many years been a classroom teacher. He, and the members of his production team, have spent countless hours in schools and in classrooms, observing, filming, talking with adults but also talking with children.

Much of the material in this book has appeared previously, and has been reworked to provide a more coherent overall approach. Teachers often recycle and rework material from one lesson into another: for one thing, we do not have enough time to create every lesson anew, for another, we are learning what works and what needs to be modified, and finally, what we should do should reflect our learning from our students. In that sense, what Merrow is doing in this book is functioning as a teacher, with his tv audience and his readers being the students in his classroom. Thus even though some of the material is not new, it is reexamined and represented in light of the overall goal of the slim but effective volume.

In the preface, Fighting the Last War, Merrow presents three historical purposes of school: providing access to knowledge, socialization, and custodial care. He argues that much of the first two now occurs outside of or independently of what goes on in schools, and if custodial care is all that remains – and if technology is not made available equitably to all, we will continue to see students walk away from schools, leading to an annual drop-out rate of more than a million. He argues that many of the battles on education policy is that adults are fighting old wars and ignoring the real needs of the young people in their care. The two paragraphs that end this preface are important, because they help the reader understand how Merrow has, over time, come to view his role as an education correspondent, so allow me to quote them completely from page 8:

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