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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, September 30, 2010

Teachers shepherd students through life’s cliffs and valleys

Illustration by Forest Byrd

Schools, in these United States, are often all about numbers. In recent years, federal legislation has stressed the need for standards that would measure students’ progress through a series of tests. States, including New York, have fallen in line.

The goal — to help more students achieve — may be a good one. But somewhere along the way we, as a society, may have lost sight of the most essential part of learning — the teachers and the very important human connection that good teachers inspire.

Two teachers who were important to our community died this week — Dorothy McDonald and Arthur Willis.

Mr. Willis, who was raised as a Quaker, was schooled around the world, and taught in many places, ending his career at Voorheesville. A central belief of the Quakers — members of the Religious Society of Friends — other than their pacifism is the belief that ordinary people, not just the ordained, can relate to God. When Quakers meet, they don’t listen to a minister preaching a sermon; they need no human leader or fixed program to worship.

We believe this is not unlike the way Mr. Willis taught his students. He wasn’t someone to stand up and preach to a class of silent note-taking students. He was someone who helped individuals find their own way as they learned.

A charming passage in a book he wrote with Marcia Greenberg — Heart of the Matter: The Role of Attitude in Teaching — speaks to this. In a chapter called “Teach Anywhere,” Mr. Willis writes, “Personally, I found the halls the best places to teach, because students associate breaks between classes with the freedom to socialize, grab a snack, and be one’s own strutting self. In the halls, I was best able to introduce ideas and observations that were initiated elsewhere and carried forward in a mood of inquiry, such as, ‘Well, Mark, what do you think? Was Hobbes right? Are our lives by nature “nasty, brutish, and short?”’

“ ‘Well, Mr. Willis…what was his name — Rousseau? — I agree with him — we are basically good at heart.’

“Students within ear- and eye-shot would circle around like young wolves, and off we would go. Of course, I was perpetually walking students to their next classes, with apologies for tardiness, or writing notes, or both. I spent no small amount of my most successful teaching time in a compensating or apologetic mode.

“The daily schedule allowed three or four minutes to move to the next class, but it is within the realm of learning to carry on the ruffling banter of dialectics in such brief periods.”

You needn’t have made any apologies, Mr. Willis. You helped students who might have otherwise been lost find their way.

Dorothy McDonald was a presence in the hallways of her school, too. She was the principal of Clarksville Elementary for eight years and, as she walked the halls, she would greet the students by name. “She knew every student in the school,” said Michael Tebbano, Bethlehem’s superintendent. “She knew something special about every one...Her smile and encouragement made children comfortable in school…She knew their families and she valued and cherished each student.”

Ms. McDonald had the sense of a legacy left to her by her own teachers. She grew up in New Salem and went to the old-fashioned two-room schoolhouse there, fondly recalling her warm and nurturing teacher. Later, at Clayton A. Bouton High School in Voorheesville, she was inspired by her English and Latin teacher, Ellen Murphy. “She supported female students in ways that encouraged them in all subjects,” Ms. McDonald told us years ago. “She was an outstanding role model.”

This week, Ms. McDonald herself was described as warm and nurturing and as a role model for other principals.

This is no coincidence. The values that students learn from their teachers can direct their lives in good ways without ever showing up in a test score.

Ms. McDonald inspired a strong sense of community at Clarksville that went beyond students and their families and even beyond faculty and staff. When there was talk of closing the school in the early part of the decade, she rallied the community to keep the school open.

“She believed Clarksville education was strong and worth keeping. She gave her darnedest for keeping a very special school,” Dr. Tebbano said this week.

What Ms. McDonald did at that school went beyond raising test scores, although she did that, too. Under her tutelage, Dr. Tebbano said, “Kids learned to respect each other.” Again, these are lessons that can guide a life, without ever being part of the Race to the Top.

Ms. McDonald had talked to us when she first started at Clarksville about the importance of teaching young children. “They’re forming a value system, carrying ideas about the world, and learning about basic things like right and wrong, and issues of character,” she said. “We help them develop fine, strong characters, to see themselves as competent, caring people, and to develop learning strategies they’ll use their whole lives.”

As we mourn Mr. Willis and Ms. McDonald this week, let us remember their legacies. Let us pay heed to some of the important life lessons that are beyond measure.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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