To Whom it May Concern:
I am a compulsively judgmental person. I observe, I compare, I prod, and with minimal hesitation, I condemn. In my court, the “burden of proof” lies with affirmation.
Nonetheless, after evaluating Dr. Karen Spencer for over two years, I am forced to conclude that she is, in the words of one former Michigan Teacher of the Year, a “master educator.”
My ruling is based on six characteristics identified by Teach For America. After analyzing decades of data and interviews, their analysts have determined that a teacher who advances students’ abilities by more than one and one-half years consistently:
Sets big goals for his or her students. To outsiders, the goal Dr. Spencer sets for each of her students might seem simple: to understand and execute second-year algebra independently after one school-year. But closer examination reveals just what a goal this is.
While all of her incoming students have ostensibly “passed” first-year algebra, many did so crutched by an educational system incentivized to graduate as many students as quickly as thinkable as cheaply as possible. Dr. Spencer thus spends a substantial portion of the school year nursing such elementary subjects as fractions and negative numbers. Not only are they foundational to algebra; they are crucial to students’ life-long abilities to comprehend everything from bills to recipes to polls. Further, Dr. Spencer aborts students’ addiction to calculators, too often revealing ignorance of the multiplication table—another skill that ought to have been mastered years ago.
A student who makes it through Dr. Spencer's class therefore may have progressed several grades in one year’s time—a stark contradiction to her class’s supposed remediation. Her goal for her students is itself a marvel.
Perpetually looks for ways to improve effectiveness. For thirty-six years, Dr. Spencer has hand-writen outlines, worksheets, quizzes, and countless other materials. Asked once why she does not more often use textbook problems, fellow teachers’ sheets, or even materials she’s prepared in past years, she admitted, “I really should. But I’m constantly saying to myself, ‘Come on, Karen! Couldn’t you teach this better? Maybe you should reorganize these lessons or deconstruct that concept further.’” Frequently she stays up until three in the morning drawing up lessons, to be used once and then redone the following year. As high her standard for students is, her standard for herself is higher.
Avidly recruits students and their families into the process. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays Dr. Spencer holds after-school tutoring sessions. Some days these are widely-attended; more often they are not, but never for lack of announcement. In the week preceding exams Dr. Spencer has gone so far as to phone students and parents insisting that use be made of her cadre of loyal tutors. Also, she connects with students on a personal basis, making careful but genuine compliments and prods that mean much more than others’ catch-all statements, which, while well-intended, usually prove weightless.
Maintains focus, ensuring that everything they do contributes to student learning. Dr. Spencer understands nuances of classroom management with uncanny precision. Some students, she knows, need immediate affirmation, so she asks that they finger their answers in the air. Other students hesitate to share, so she allows them their peace. This is not to say that she accepts partial participation: students in class and at tutoring sessions quickly learn to expect dismissal should their dialogue waver from math. At the same time, Dr. Spencer allows students to work independently on sections they struggle with during more expendable lessons, allowing for more flexible pacing. One way or another, her students are with her to learn.
Plans exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome. Although many of her students begin severely behind, Dr. Spencer links each of her lessons in strategic succession to form a network of skills upon which all can climb to proficiency. Lessons are broken down into concise steps that will not only serve them through the day but over the course of a year, and hopefully, in future classes.
Works relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls. Dr. Spencer rarely teaches the privileged. Indeed, many of her students’ family circumstances inhibit the solid study her instruction demands. Yet contrary to what her firm demeanor might suggest, I have witnessed her accommodate everything from teenage mothers’ children to transportation trouble to simple hunger with non-judgmental grace.
She herself is the daughter of parents who resisted her drive to finish her homework late into the night. Years later, to complete her teaching certificate, she would commute between three colleges for a summer, scarfing food on her drives between classes and doing homework during lectures. Perhaps she will rest when she retires, but given her record, I doubt she will ever rest, not even in her grave.
Those fixated on a rubric’s conception of “good teaching”; those hankering for innovative technology and hands-on application; those who would sooner yield to lowered standards—they may dismiss Dr. Spencer's singular reliance on hard work as time-worn and impractical. The Atlantic’s Amanda Ripley certainly would have, for she wrote her 2010 article that “What Makes a Great Teacher” that when examining candidate teachers, “[Teach for America program director Krzysztof] Kosmicki is not very interested in the things I noticed most: charisma, ambitious lesson objectives, extroversion.” Rather, she continued, successful teachers have “a history of perseverance—not just an attitude, but a track record.”
Dr. Spencer bears thirty-eight years of classroom experience and a life-story to speak to her perseverance. My ardent confidence in her worthiness may seem beyond the scope of an ordinary evaluation, but as David Oliver Relin wrote in his 2006 book Three Cups of Tea, “sometimes, to be human, you have to take sides.” Dr. Spencer sides staunchly with the well-being of her students, often at cost to her own well-being. Her strength I can only support.
Dominic Surya, HHS’12
[my name] at yahoo dot com