About Great Teachers…the Lesson of the Boxes!!!

What separates the mediocre ones from the great ones?????

Published in the Delaware County Daily Times

Sunday, January 12, 2020

By Joseph Batory, Times Columnist

Having been a career educator for nearly 30 years, I admit to having very strong feelings about what constitutes good teaching. However, most of my educational perspectives have come from my personal experiences as a student.

I have been heavily colored by the good, the bad, and the ugly in classrooms where I was present.  And like the sensitive sponge that I am, I have absorbed it all and processed it into an educational philosophy. They were teachers who gave me encouragement and self-confidence.  They were also those who showed me fairness and patience. There were some great motivators.  But alas, there were some teachers in my experience who were terrible communicators of their subject matter.  Some had no concept whatsoever about teaching the academically struggling or the unmotivated. And finally, I had some teachers who specialized in fear and degradation of students.

When I began my doctoral studies some 40 years ago as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, I ran smack into the ideological treatises of an avid Marxist professor. This professor blatantly condemned schooling in the USA, noting that far too many public-school educators are nothing more than validators of the socioeconomic inequalities that pupils bring with them to the classroom.

I adamantly disagreed (not a smart idea at a university) with this professor at that time. I fought with him intellectually in front of classmates and eventually suffered a low grade because of my daring to do this. Ironically, shortly thereafter, I began very reluctantly to see some validity in the professor’s arguments…certainly not his generalized condemnation of American schooling… but in one of his underlying premises about education in the USA.

The professor had decreed that there has been and continues to be too much “rubberstamping of students in schools.”  And, I soon came to agree with the professor’s premise that mediocre teachers all too often end up validating a youngster for what he or she is at that time … and never pursue what that pupil might become.

In the thesis of this Marxist professor, students who show up with academic talent and initiative to tend to do very well in USA classrooms. Average students tend to stay lost in the middle. And pupils who arrive with personal or academic baggage are in trouble from the outset because a mediocre educator labels these young people negatively and support his/her conclusions about such srudents with quantified results, commonly known as tests. Such a procedure, in the professor’s view, destroys too many kids who have real needs and blasphemes the nature of excellent teaching.

As so, I eventually came to believe strongly that great teachers must be change agents. They find a positive switch to flip on in those kids who to others seem lost. For the great teacher, where the student is at present does not matter…Instead, where can I take this young person becomes his/her driving force. Encouragement and praise and positive reinforcement become the tools to turn around the life of any student, regardless of ability level or personal problems.  Creating an educational success story where some thought not possible is this mark of excellence goal for the great teacher.

Nothing had a higher priority for me as a school superintendent that to encourage and inspire our staff of teachers to care about and make the best effort for every student. Perhaps my most famous address to the Upper Darby School District’s approximately 1000 staff members focused on that point.

I had delivered many academic addresses during my career.  But in this unique case, my speech was short and simple. It was focused on some boxes on the stage in front of this large audience of educators. One was a beautifully wrapped masterpiece of a gift box, set off by glittering bows and ribbons. Another simple box was decorated with just one small bow. The third box was enclosed with brown paper wrap and tied with twine. And the fourth box had been crushed and torn to shreds.

I then told the large crowd of teachers and teacher assistants and secretaries and school principals that each of these boxes had dreams and hopes.  But my challenge question that followed asked how many of us would treat each of these boxes equally and without discrimination. How many of us could believe in and work with each box equally?

That egalitarian goal definitely hit home with the audience because it drew a standing ovation.  On numerous occasions when I visited schools in the weeks that followed this speech, teachers and principals and others would stop me and tell me that the lesson of the boxes was impacting what they were doing each day. Indeed, the lesson of the boxes is the guidepost for collective and individual thinking among Upper Darby’s best many teachers about students.

Paul Houston, a former executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, once defined the epitome of educational excellence in the classroom as helping all young people to dream and then to become. More than anything else, great teachers give wings to the dreams of all students.

In summary, the mission of the truly great educator is certainly to push the high achieving student to even greater heights…but also, to motivate and inspire the average pupil to higher academic goals and success, to be the  mentor to that youngster whom everyone has written off, and to bring genuine caring to that kid who has no love in life.


Joseph Batory is a past superintendent of schools in the Upper Darby School District.  He is the author of three books and more than 100 published op-ed pieces on politics and education.

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