Meet the Commissioner

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A friend asked me to help at a conference a few weeks ago. She was going to run a workshop and needed people to take notes, ask questions, and keep tabs on what the small groups were discussing.

The conference would bring together educators from Vermont’s local and regional standards boards to help them get better at what they do.

What these standards boards do is help teachers create and carry out plans for their own professional development.

It’s a pretty neat system. To be relicensed in Vermont, as in all states, teachers have to take courses, attend workshops, and do other things to improve their teaching.

But Vermont, unlike most states, requires teachers to figure out for themselves what they need to learn and how they’ll learn it. The local and regional standards boards review these plans. They make sure teachers will not only attend workshops, but will reflect on their learning; or that they take courses to fill a specific gap in their knowledge, rather than simply taking whatever’s offered on a convenient night.

I agreed to help my friend.

The keynote speaker would be Ray McNulty.

I’d heard him speak at a conference a couple of years ago. He had described a nationally acclaimed program connecting preschool education with the primary grades in Brattleboro where he’s been superintendent for some years.

At that conference, his presentation had included graphs and charts, facts and figures, all of which added up to some very impressive findings.

I figured that he’d bring that same approach to this conference. Boy, was I wrong.

Our new commissioner began with a story about his mother and her pasta sauce. He’d loved the sauce as a child, and so had asked his mother for the recipe some years ago.

He bought all the ingredients. He followed the instructions to a tee. He tasted. Sure, it was good. But it wasn’t as good as his mother’s sauce.

Here’s what he had to say about this. Teaching is the same. Quote. “You can follow all the instructions, and still not have it work out. Just like cooking, there’s so much more to teaching. It’s so complex. The job is about unlocking potential. Unlocking the potential in teachers so they can unlock the potential in students.” Unquote.

Then he gave his own recipe for good teaching, based on lessons drawn from his experience.

Teachers, he explained, need to be authentic. They need to be confident yet modest. They need to be good listeners. They need to give encouragement while always asking for just a little bit more. They need to make unexpected connections between one piece of information and another. Teachers need to give direction as well as lead by example. And finally, they need to understand the importance of failure as a learning tool.

McNulty summed it all up by saying – quote – teachers have to maintain the desire to keep on learning – about yourself, your peers and the students you serve – unquote.

The audience applauded enthusiastically, then headed off to learn the details: how to award credit for non-traditional activities, or how to link independent professional development plans to school action plans and all the rest.

In Vermont, as in much of this country, educators are doing things they weren’t doing a couple of decades ago. They’re taking advantage of the wealth of research about effective teaching. They’re connecting assessments with curriculum creation; and they’re engaging in a lot of other complicated activities designed to take some of the guesswork out of teaching.

But Vermont’s new commissioner reminded us that good teaching begins, very simply, with good teachers; with people who’ll vigorously study mama’s pasta sauce recipe, then add their own secret ingredient.

This is Nick Boke in Weathersfield, Vermont.

–Nick Boke is a reading consultant, minister and freelance writer.

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