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Teachers are key to our children’s success

As a pastor and longtime member of the Frayser community, I have a strong interest in seeing our children do well in school. And although I believe their success is driven by a range of factors such as class sizes and the availability of good texts and other materials, I also know that having a great teacher is the most important school-based factor in student achievement.

Research in a recent report by Shepherding the Next Generation shows that a student assigned to an excellent teacher may gain more than a full year's worth of additional academic growth compared to a student assigned to a weak teacher. Indeed, a highly effective teacher has a greater impact on achievement than any other factor within the school environment.

That report also examined a Tennessee study that found that an average student with three highly effective teachers scored in the top 10 percent of students after three years, while a similar student with ineffective teachers scored in the bottom 40 percent after the same period of time.

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Given these facts, I am gratified that we have so many committed, hard-working, and talented teachers in the Shelby County Schools, including those who are members of my own church. That is why my fellow pastors and I have been setting aside one Sunday each spring to celebrate our teachers for their critical role in shepherding the next generation of children towards success in school and in life.

Of course, this is not to say that all teachers are as successful in the classroom as others – there are clearly more and less effective teachers – or that new teachers don't benefit from experience and training. That is why I am pleased that the Shelby County Schools have continued the process started over the last several years in Memphis to help teachers get feedback about their practice and learn where they are strong and where they can improve. This process was developed with the input of a wide range of interested parties, including teachers (and their union), administrators, and community representatives.

While I recognize that it's not always easy to hear criticism, my sense is that this appraisal and feedback is critical to helping teachers know where they stand and to get advice about how to move to the next level of their craft. This is a fairly new development in education. In a nationwide study by The New Teacher Project, almost 75 percent of teachers said they did not receive any specific feedback on improving their performance in their last evaluation, and that less than one percent of teachers received a negative performance rating, even in schools where students continuously failed to meet basic academic standards.

Moving to this new evaluation model is an important step forward that will help underperforming teachers become more effective, and help successful teachers get even better. (It will also help identify the small minority of teachers who would be better off finding a career outside the classroom.)

This is no different than many other professions. As a pastor, I need to know if I am meeting the needs of my congregation because I have a calling to be their shepherd and to teach and care for them as Christ teaches and cares for me. Without constructive feedback by my church's elder board and members – which I assure you I get – I could be failing my duties without even knowing it.

This approach to teacher assessment can only work, however, if there are processes in place to help teachers improve. There is a great amount of work being done in Shelby County and around the state and country to figure out what kind of professional development is most effective to helping teachers improve their practice. I hope that this continues to be a priority for our school district, and that it devotes enough resources to this based on best practices developed in the profession.

Of course, teachers and administrators do not operate in a vacuum. It is essential that those of us in leadership roles in the community do all we can to encourage and motivate parents to play an important role in the education of their children, at home and in the schools. Teachers can be more successful when they have the support of parents who get their children to school every day, on time, prepared and ready to learn.

I think we're on track to see continued improvements in our schools as they play a critical role in preparing our children for success in their education, in a career, as parents, and as citizens. Those are the outcomes we want for our kids because that is the pathway to success for Shelby County in the 21st Century.

(Pastor DeAndre Brown of Lifeline Ministries is a partner with Shepherding The Next Generation in Shelby County.)

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