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February 17, 2011 8:23 am

AMEND CORNER: Ordinary people, extraordinary job

Written by Don Amend

Back in 1950, I walked across the main road through Hyattville and entered the first grade.

That event was the start of a school career that took up fully half of the 20th Century. It ended in the fall of 1999 when Greybull High School, where I spent 30 years of my life, opened for the school year without me.

I hasten to point out here, for those of you who are scratching your heads over what I just wrote, that it didn’t take me that long to graduate from high school. I actually did that in the standard four years in Worland in 1962. But, for some reason, I stayed in school through four years of college in Laramie, and 33 years as a teacher, including the 30 down the road in Big Horn County.

I have often been asked why I became a teacher in the first place, and there were four basic reasons for my choice.

First of all, I figured, since there were schools just about everywhere, I could find a job in a place like the town I grew up in. I wouldn’t have to go off to the big city or move to someplace like Southern California to make a living.

Second, I took John Kennedy’s challenge to ask what I could do for my country seriously. At the time I was in high school, the nation was still battling a teacher’s shortage, and given the fact that I was pretty comfortable in school, I saw teaching as a way to help out the country.

Third, my interests — literature, history and political science — seemed to lend themselves to teaching.

Finally, I knew what my teachers had done for me. I didn’t necessarily like all of them, and I was disrespectful of some of them at times, but as I looked back on my school years, I realized that all of them had done something for me.

I did not, by any means, enter teaching for the money. My college friends who entered engineering were greeted by starting salaries nearly twice the salary I started with. Neither did I choose to be a teacher because I would have three months off every year.

And, although I felt the teacher shortage at the time would provide me with job opportunities, I did not enter teaching under the assumption that I would be guaranteed a job.

As for my career, I will say up front that I was never the Teacher of the Year. There were times when I was an excellent teacher and times when I was lousy. Often I was both on the same day, sometimes in the same class period, and on occasion, even simultaneously. I always felt I was just average, and it irked me because I did try to be better.

My wife once jokingly asked my son, the class valedictorian, a National Merit Scholar, and a pretty honest guy, whether I was a good teacher or not. His reply was, “He’s as good as the rest of them.” 

Well, I took that as a compliment, because I taught with some pretty good teachers, but what his answer really meant was that I was an ordinary teacher. That distresses me, but that’s the way it was, and whatever success I had was as part of that team of teachers with a variety of strengths and weaknesses.

Currently, the Wyoming Legislature is trying to find ways to improve school performance and is focusing on evaluating teachers and finding ways to reward the good ones and get rid of the bad ones in an effort to fill the state’s schools with super teachers. Achieving that goal, though, is about as likely as having five budding Michael Jordans go out for the PHS basketball team next year.

No one would argue that a bad teacher should not\ be terminated, particularly the other teachers in the building who depend on him or her. But in the end, educating children, like many of society’s essential tasks, depends on essentially ordinary people who work together to achieve extraordinary things. Teamwork and effective administrative leadership  can produce that result.

Positive support from the community is also important. I can attest from personal experience that, when the community believes in its schools, the students believe in them, too, and they perform better.

The Legislature’s work this year, unfortunately, focuses only on the performance of individual teachers.

In the end, that focus won’t do the job.

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