Excellent teachers need excellent conditions

Want excellent teachers? Create excellent classroom situations, writes Ellie Herman, who teaches at a charter high school, in the Los Angeles Times. And forget about “the myth of the extraordinary teacher” who can leap tall buildings in a single bound.

The kid in the back wants me to define “logic.” The girl next to him looks bewildered. The boy in front of me dutifully takes notes even though he has severe auditory processing issues and doesn’t understand a word I’m saying. Eight kids forgot their essays, but one has a good excuse because she had another epileptic seizure last night. The shy, quiet girl next to me hasn’t done homework for weeks, ever since she was jumped by a knife-wielding gangbanger as she walked to school. The boy next to her is asleep with his head on the desk because he works nights at a factory to support his family.

. . .  A kid with dyslexia, ADD and anger-management problems walks in late, throws his books on the desk and swears at me when I tell him to take off his hood.

The class, one of five I teach each day, has 31 students, including two with learning disabilities, one who just moved here from Mexico, one with serious behavior problems, 10 who flunked this class last year and are repeating, seven who test below grade level, three who show up halfway through class every day, one who almost never comes. I need to reach all 31 of them, including the brainiac who’s so bored she’s reading “Lolita” under her desk.

I just can’t do it.

With less state funding, California public schools have boosted class sizes. That means teachers have less time to get to know their students, Herman writes. With more than 150 students in her classes, she can spend only five or 10 minutes on each essay, writing a few sentences of feedback.

I understand that we need to get rid of bad teachers, who will be just as bad in small classes, but we can’t demand that teachers be excellent in conditions that preclude excellence.

Herman teaches at a Green Dot school, Animo Pat Brown Charter High School. Students — nearly all Hispanic and low-income — score well above average on state tests.

I suspect Herman would find it easy to teach large classes of students at approximately the same academic level who do homework, show up every day, understand English and aren’t disabled. But that’s not reality.