Thursday 26 January 2012

How great teachers can transform lives

How Mrs Grady transformed Olly Neal
By Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times, 21 Jan 2012

IF YOU want to understand how great teachers transform lives, listen to the story of Olly Neal.

A recent study showed how a great elementary school teacher can raise the lifetime earnings of a single class by US$700,000 (S$895,000). After I wrote about the United States study, sceptics of school reform wrote to me to say: Sure, a great teacher can make a difference in the right setting, but not with troubled, surly kids in a high-poverty environment.

If you think that, then listen to this story.

In the late 1950s, Olly Neal was a poor black kid with an attitude. He was one of 13 brothers and sisters in a house with no electricity, and his father was a farmer with a second-grade education. Mr Neal attended a small school for black children - this was in the segregated South - and was always mouthing off.

He remembers reducing his English teacher, Mrs Mildred Grady, to tears. 'I was not a nice kid,' he recalls. 'I had a reputation. I was the only one who made her cry... She would have had good reason to say: 'This boy is incorrigible.' '

A regular shoplifter back then, he was caught stealing from the store where he worked part-time. He seemed headed for a life in trouble.

Dr Carolyn Blakely, then a new teacher at the school - she retired last year as dean of the Honours College that now bears her name at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff - remembers Mr Neal as an at-risk kid prone to challenging authority. At the time, even students were addressed as 'Mr' or 'Miss', but he disrupted class by impertinently calling her 'Carolyn'. To deal with children like him, she said: 'I'd go home and stand in front of the mirror and practise being mean.'

One day in 1957, in his senior year, Mr Neal cut her class and wandered to the library, set up by Mrs Grady, the English teacher he had tormented. He was not a reader, but he spotted a book with a risque cover of a sexy woman.

Called The Treasure Of Pleasant Valley, it was by Frank Yerby, a black author, and it looked appealing. Mr Neal says he thought of checking it out, but he did not want word to get out to any of his classmates that he was reading a novel.

That would have been humiliating.

'So I stole it.' He tucked the book under his jacket and took it home - and loved it. After finishing the book, he sneaked it back into the library. And there, on the shelf, he noticed another novel by Yerby. He stole that one as well.

This book was also terrific. And, to his surprise, when he returned it to the shelf after finishing it, he found yet another book by Yerby.

This happened four times, and he caught the book bug. 'Reading got to be a thing I liked,' he says. His trajectory changed, and he later graduated to more difficult novels, including those by French author and journalist Albert Camus, and he turned to newspapers and magazines as well. He went to college and later to law school.

In 1991, he was appointed the first black district prosecuting attorney in Arkansas. He became a judge a few years later, and then an appellate court judge.

There is more. At a high school reunion, Mrs Grady stunned him by confiding that she had spotted him stealing that first book. Her impulse was to confront him, but then, in a flash of understanding, she realised his embarrassment at being seen checking out a book. So she kept quiet.

The following Saturday, she told him, she drove more than 100km to Memphis to scour the bookshops for another novel by Yerby. Finally, she found one, bought it and put it on the library bookshelf.

Twice more, she told him, she spent her Saturdays trekking to Memphis to buy books by Yerby - all in the hope of turning around a rude adolescent who had made her cry. She paid for the books out of her own pocket.

How can one measure the impact she had? Not only on Mr Neal, but on the lives of those around him. His daughter Karama earned a doctorate in genetics, taught bioethics at Emory University, and now runs a community development programme in Arkansas.

Mrs Grady, now dead, is a reminder that teachers might have the most important job in America. By all accounts, she transformed many other children as well, through more mundane methods.

To me, the lesson is that while there are no silver bullets to chip away at poverty or improve national competitiveness, improving the ranks of teachers is part of the answer. That is especially true for needy kids, who often get the weakest teachers.

That should be the civil rights scandal of our time. The implication is that we need rigorous teacher evaluations, more pay for good teachers, and more training and weeding out of poor teachers.

The need for more pay is simple. In the 1950s, outstanding women like Mrs Grady did not have many alternatives, so they became teachers. She was black, so she did not have many options other than teaching black children in a segregated school.

Today, such women often become doctors, lawyers or bankers - professions that offer far higher salaries. If America wants to recruit and retain the best teachers, it simply has to pay more - while also thinning out more aggressively those who do not succeed. It's worth it.

'There are some kids who can't be reached,' Mr Neal acknowledges. 'But there are some you can reach every now and then.' As his life demonstrates.

A good teacher can make all the difference

I WAS touched by the story of teacher Mildred Grady and poor American black student Olly Neal in Monday's commentary ('How Mrs Grady transformed Olly Neal').

The English teacher's painstaking effort transformed the student's life: a potential criminal, he turned over a new leaf, strove hard and became an appellate court judge. Mr Neal's story serves as a reminder of the important role of teachers in moulding children's lives.

Many parents want their children to become lawyers, doctors, investment bankers or other professionals with high social status. Not many bother to wonder how these lawyers, doctors and investment bankers came to be there in the first place. They reach positions where great trust is placed on their skills, ethics and character to do what is in the best interests of many people.

Who imparts to them their ethics and character? It is the teacher in the classroom who plays a critical role.

In Singapore, where our children spend close to half their waking hours in school, it would be naive to insist that teachers lay only the academic foundations of our children. The truth is that the teacher's impact goes beyond the sphere of studies - it strengthens the moral foundations of our children and in so doing, moulds their character and turns them into men and women who society can be proud of.

While we laud our top students for achieving wonderful results, perhaps we also need to applaud the teachers behind them who helped their wards make these achievements possible.

A word also needs to be said about the teachers in neighbourhood schools, whose greatest achievement might lie in pushing their students' failing grades up to a pass.

Their efforts may not receive recognition but are no less important for the values they represent to the struggling student: that with hard work and belief in himself, he too can achieve results.

The values transcend the classroom and enrich the lives of these students who will carry them into adulthood.

Let us hope there are enough good teachers to impart such values to our younger generations.

Kelvin Wong
ST Forum, 26 Jan 2012

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