BETWEEN WORK, SHOPPING, AND BOTOX PARTIES, there simply isn’t time to teach our children everything they need to know. That is why most of us allow other people to do it. Every day, we send them to school hoping their teachers will shape their mind, encourage them to achieve, and keep them safe. It is an awesome responsibility that frequently goes unnoticed. But former teacher Dorothy McConachie has decided that it’s time to give credit where credit is due. In her new book, Top Texas Teachers, McConachie highlights 35 people who have excelled at educating our children. Here, she discusses the book and her thoughts on teaching.
texasmonthly.com: How did you come up with the idea for this book?
Dorothy McConachie: I have wanted to write a book about teachers for a long time. Regardless of how many computers there are in each classroom, how many games a team wins, or how much money a school has, it is the person standing in the front of the classroom who determines the quality of education.
texasmonthly.com: What was your goal in writing this book?
DM: The purpose of Top Texas Teachers was to celebrate the wonderful people teaching our children. Teachers work hard and do not receive the recognition they deserve. I also hope this book will inspire other great people to go into education.
texasmonthly.com: Is teaching a skill that anyone can learn, or is it a natural ability that only some possess?
DM: Anyone can become a better teacher by learning new skills and techniques. These teachers can be effective for some students. However, the best teachers are those who truly care about their students. This is a trait that can be nurtured and expanded, but not taught.
texasmonthly.com: What is the most important quality a teacher can have?
DM: The most important quality a teacher can have is to sincerely care about his or her students. When the students know the teacher cares about each one as an individual, they will do their best. Of course, there are many corollaries to this: A teacher must respect the students and adjust the lessons to the students’ needs and abilities. But these are things a teacher who cares about students will automatically do.
texasmonthly.com: What is the biggest challenge teachers are facing today?
DM: When I asked teachers that question during the interview process, I expected to hear that their biggest challenge was to live on their meager pay. Although many said they knew they would never be rich, that their spouse would always have to work, or something similar, overwhelmingly, the greatest challenges the best teachers today face are the non-teaching activities they are required to perform.
texasmonthly.com: We all know how influential a good teacher can be, but how detrimental are the bad ones? What do you do if you feel the person teaching your child is inadequate?
DM: Bad teachers can severely affect a student’s life. Several of the teachers profiled in Top Texas Teachers were convinced that they were dumb, certainly too dumb to go to college. In some cases, it took an unsatisfying career and a wise mentor to recognize the person’s potential. Some of the stories in this book tell how great teachers can literally save lives. I did not focus on the lesser teachers; we hear about them all too often. This is a book in praise of teachers.
If parents feel their child’s teacher is inadequate, they should meet and discuss their differences as soon as possible. If the situation continues to deteriorate, then changes need to be made. No one can be all things to all people. Sometimes a student will blossom with someone else and another child will bloom with the original teacher.
texasmonthly.com: How do you think Texas public education compares with the rest of the U.S.?
DM: I have not adequately studied education in the rest of the U.S. to answer this question. Our overall ranking is disappointing. However, we do have many bright stars teaching in our classrooms. These teachers and their colleagues are the ones who will make a difference.
texasmonthly.com: Does private education have public beat?
DM: The teachers profiled in Top Texas Teachers come from both the public and private sectors—neither has a monopoly on great teachers. Some of the teachers in the book have taught in both venues. Their assessment is that private schools seem to be more concerned with the entire child and the classes are smaller so each student gets more individualized attention. Yet these same teachers will also admit that a lot of wonderful things take place in public schools. It is difficult to generalize because there are exceptions to every rule.
texasmonthly.com: Why do you think teachers are devalued in our society? Are there things we can do to change that?
DM: This is a difficult question. There are so many reasons that contribute to the devaluation of teachers in our society. One reason is that we pay them so little for the education, time, and devotion required of each one. The work is extremely hard, and the hours are long. Top teachers spend many hours beyond the school day as well as vacations and holidays studying and preparing for their classes. As a result, a lot of young people today do not want to go into education. Therefore, the pool of potential teachers no longer consists of the best college students. Paying teachers what they are worth and eliminating non-teaching activities (or paying extra for them) would probably entice more good people to choose education.