An effective teacher

Posted on | September 19, 2010 | 8 Comments

With apologies to its followers, “The week that was” is postponed and will return next Sunday. I am cleaning up after a party, and not any party, but a farewell party for Michelle Ereckson, who after more than a decade teaching at 24th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles has transferred to a campus closer to her new home.

Those who believe in the test score rankings of teacher effectiveness compiled by the Los Angeles Times will be neither impressed nor horrified by Michelle. The Times, in its statistical beneficence, rates her as “average.” At the most fallible end of that ranking system, they may even find themselves applauding test whisperers, instructors adroit in indicating how a child might most profitably answer a certain question.

Michelle is not that. Teaching runs in her blood, literally. She’s the daughter of a teacher. Summing up how this manifests itself taxes my powers of description, so these snapshots will have to suffice. If Michelle’s 3rd grade students tested average, that in itself is amazing. She often demanded to be given the lowest performing kids in an already low-peforming school, many of whom she would hold back until they were ready for the next year.

At 24th Street, Michelle was also the union rep, always at the side of a teacher in trouble, always cooking up cool projects with the other best teachers, but bearing down with brutal frankness on the losers who weren’t pulling their weight. And there were some stunning losers, make that users, including one who taught stoned on medical marijuana and told fabulous lies about supposed miracle work, including having taught a mute child to speak. To Michelle’s utter disgust, that “teacher” left the system bragging that she had extracted a disability pension on the claim of mental duress.*

It takes a lot of indifference to create a failing school, including that of parents who too often see education as no more than free childcare. While Michelle was fierce representing good teachers when blame was reflexively dumped on them, she was fiercer still in defense of kids. When a child was in trouble, she was a tireless advocate.

What readers unfamiliar with urban schools should appreciate is that when there was trouble, it was too often the kind that would terrify an adult, never mind a third grader. Twenty-fourth Street Elementary School does not serve the rich. There are a lot of used backpacks and the parents are lucky to be working class. A disturbingly high proportion of the kids graduate into the gangs that turn promising young lives on paths of mindless violence and ruin. When I first started nosing around the campus down the street from me ten years ago, it was in the 16th percentile, or, in layman’s terms, it was one of the worst schools in LA. Yet in the years I have known Michelle, three of which I actively volunteered at her campus and lost my heart to that school and its teachers and kids, I have not once seen her be piteous or patronizing. Rather, her manner is always jaunty and shot through with her singular mixture of pragmatism and love.

When Michelle organized a field trip for her class to the Santa Monica farmers market, and then to the beach, she bought each child a long-stalked sunflower to hold high in the crowd. Armed with flats of ripe cherries and strawberries, which she bought with her own money, she then took the kids to the beach. For many, this was the first time children born ten miles from the Pacific had seen the ocean.

After Michelle’s class came back, every teacher in the school demanded that their classes be treated to the same event. Michelle organized the buses and, in one year, more than a thousand children had their first trip to a farmers market.

In another special event, she had her class eat lunch with the Dodger chefs, who donated their time demonstrating salad making. It was a hit, but as Michelle’s class became more of a destination/curiosity/cause for middle class and even filthy rich do-gooders, she began thinking critically how to use this without patronizing or spoiling the kids, or, worst, allowing them to become the human equivalent of zoo exhibits for rich gawkers. When people wanted tours of the school, she had kids lead them, generating powerful school pride. She came up with the idea that prize events should be earned and only classes whose kids met reading goals set by their teachers should be eligible for the special events. Gratuitous handouts of “Big Sunday” events struck her as corrupt. She was ferocious about guarding the kids’ privacy (all the photos used here are permitted.)

She attracted that attention because she was one of that campus’ talented, dedicated teachers who led the staff and children in the formation of a magnificent and wholly transformational school garden project. When she arrived at 24th Street School, its sea of cracked asphalt and chain link looked more like a prison than a school. She leaves it with an acre of green space. There are many, mainly outsiders, who take bows for this transformation. The more bows they take, the less they probably did. The saddest part about this is the teachers were never given the credit they deserved, not least Michelle Ereckson. As someone who had a front row seat from the very beginning of the project, I can say without hesitation that the now much admired gardens at 24th Street School would never have taken form had not Michelle Ereckson inspired the greater teaching staff and district to support the project.

She spent every Friday afternoon for years meeting with the garden teacher (whom she recently married) and me refining and revising lesson plans. The way that the garden teaching program is now organized by grade level instead of lurching from kindergarten sessions to 5th grade classes in one chaotic day was her idea one of those Friday afternoons. Under her oversight, no fences were needed to protect the emerging garden space from vandalism or just plain rambunctiousness. Rather, every year began with an orientation for how to behave in the garden; under her leadership, every teacher put his or her class through the orientation.

The year that I worked most closely with Michelle’s class, her third graders planted wheat, threshed it and made dough. For lack of an oven, they then went to a bakery and saw dough like theirs being baked. From there they proceeded to a bread shop, where the manager explained how it was priced, sold and how change was made, allowing each child to work the scales and till in practice transactions. In five lesson days, she combined botany, math, economics and glimpses of a prosperous and interesting adult world that would one day be open to them — if they just studied.

I have never known anyone quite like Michelle Ereckson before, and I’m sure that 24th Street School will never see quite her brand of human genius again. As a new school year begins without her, I am indescribably sad at her having left my community.

There is consolation. At 24th Street, she leaves generations of kids who will be more successful and far happier for having been taught by her. That, in my book, is the definition of a most effective teacher.

-Emily Green, 24th Street, Los Angeles, California

This post has been updated with a few new thoughts, transition tweaks and the note about photo permissions. *It was further updated after reading Don’s comment (below).


8 Responses to “An effective teacher”

  1. Marie Bellande
    September 19th, 2010 @ 6:52 pm

    I retired 3 years ago and when I did I wondered what was to become of future generations of students who will have missed “the good old days” when children were taught by the sheer strength of well educated teachers who knew what to teach and how to teach it without a script in their hands mandated by the Districtand the State. Watching Michelle Ereckson in action was a huge relief and an “Ah-ha!” moment in time. I realized that she, and others like her, would carry the legacy that this country was founded on since the first Little Red School House. It is with the inspiring nature and determined stamina of the “I will not fail this child!” attitude that Michelle has that makes us all hopeful that this nation will not fail its young. We can only hope that all teachers, present and future, will have the guts to stand up for what is right for children. I applaud her and I applaud you, Emily, for making your statement about her leadership because so often successful teachers go un-noticed in this District that looks to blame rather than reward where reward is earned.
    Congratulations to Michelle for being Michelle.

  2. Don
    September 20th, 2010 @ 8:59 am

    Thank you for a very interesting post. I thoroughly enjoy your website and visit it every day. Your logic and good sense about water issues as well as your garden imagrey is an inspiration to me.
    The problem as raised by media such as the LA Times and the New Yorker is not with teachers who rank as average in rating systems; these rating system clearly fail to identify teachers such as Michelle. Most concern is rather about teachers who are so bad that nobody questions the fact that they should be out of the system. The biggest problem raised by the responsible media is that school systems are not able to get rid of the worst of the lot—teachers with abysmal teaching and/or attendance records or who have credible charges against them such as drunkenness while at school (or even worse charges). I see the biggest threat to teachers such as Michelle to be the public anger directed against a system that is not able to identify the tremendous contributions of teachers such as Michelle while at the same time is unable to fire the truly horrible teachers. Public anger can grow ugly, and wonderful teachers such as Michelle will not benefit from it.

  3. Diana Ereckson
    September 20th, 2010 @ 12:50 pm

    It, her compassion and need to help others, began long ago. At the age of 18 months another mom and I (Michelle’ mom) took our children to see an exhibit about Africa at the Museum of Nature and Science in Denver. Michelle so intently looked at the photos of children with distended stomachs and asked why? Over the years Michelle has been the champion of people or situations that struck a sour chord within her. She once challenged a person in a parking lot over a bumper sticker that offended her. She has been known to offer shelter to those who would have been out in the elements. There have been times, then and now, when her dad and I have worried that her strong stance would get her in a situation that she could not get out of. That does not bother Michelle…when she feels passionate about a situation, she will defend it to the fullest.
    So it was for 10 years at 24th Street Elementary. She had/has the highest expectations of children in her classes. One time I was in her classroom and went to assist a child I thought was floundering. Michelle told me to sit down because she wanted the child to solve her own problem. She helped parents find housing, she taught children with little at home how to can spaghetti sauce so when the fresh ingredients were not available the children and their families would still have nutritious food to eat.
    Michelle will miss her colleagues and the children at 24th Street Elementary, but I know that in the years she was there she gave her heart and soul to that community. They are better for her having passed through those hallowed halls.
    I am so proud to say that Michelle is my daughter and that she stands up for what she thinks is right. I wish that I had the same depth of courage that she demonstrates day in and day out.
    May you, Michelle, continue to challenge, to care, to inspire each and every student that walks through your classroom. They will be better for it. As Emily said, YOU ARE AN EFFECTIVE TEACHER!!

  4. Ken
    September 20th, 2010 @ 3:03 pm

    The biggest threat to education in Los Angeles is not poor teachers. It is the abysmal funding by the state. Currently, California ranks 47th in terms of per pupil spending among the 50 states. The result is that high school classes increasingly have 40 or more students in a class, field trips are eliminated and counselors are laid off. The “poor teacher” issue is another excuse for not funding public education.

  5. Don
    September 23rd, 2010 @ 8:50 am

    Ken: I have been a public school teacher for 35 years. The public’s perception of our schools is negatively influenced by our inability to eliminate extremely unfit teachers. This problem provides a huge stick for the beating of public education by its enemies. It seems to me that solving this problem is likely to be beneficial to the funding of public education.

  6. Wes
    September 26th, 2010 @ 9:04 am

    I had the privilege of working with Michelle at 24th St. for 8 years, and I have had the honor of calling her a close friend for the past 10 years. I bonded with her as soon as she arrived at the school; time and distance have not diminished that bond. Cynics aside, anyone who has gotten to know Michelle knows that the words written by Emily convey the true, quantifiable measure of this exceptional teacher. Yet, the Los Angeles Times, a periodical to which I subscribed and read faithfully every day for 19 years, finds her “average” according to the flawed formulaic scheme which looks at one test her students took each year, a test that doesn’t even have a beginning of the year pretest, benchmark assessment. I’m not an economist, but I know a little bit about statistics, and a closer analysis of this formula would show that its premise is as flawed as taking a picture of a teacher’s desk 15 minutes before the dismissal bell one day out of the year and using that picture as evidence that the teacher’s desk is ALWAYS a mess. One test taken each year can not begin to show what else is going on with the students in the classroom or measure how a gifted teacher such as Michelle has given such enrichment to each individual student’s life. The Los Angeles Times seems to be yearning for the decades when the Chandler family busted the local unions and owned and operated City Hall; UTLA seems to be their current public enemy number one. Bravo to Emily Green for bringing some sanity into this discussion, and shame on the Los Angeles Times for returning to its right wing roots in a desperate attempt to sell a few more papers as newspaper publishing circles the economic drain.

  7. Sandy Marsh
    September 26th, 2010 @ 10:39 am

    Emily, your article is beautiful and pitch perfect! I believe I was just leaving 24th. St. School as you were becoming part of the family, sorry to have missed you. As a member of the new teacher interview with Michelle I sensed many of the attributes you describe; warmth, commitment, passion, excitement, a genuine desire to work with children and of course, that great big smile. The children have a true champion in her as do the teachers. I feel the current, outrageous, barrage against teachers as a whole is emblematic of the impotency of the system. Of course it is easier and “sexier” to focus on and blame those on the front line…..teachers. Having been around few years, I have seen some teachers who definetly do not belong in a classroom but it SO DIFFICULT to weed them out, and most often they just get moved around, (administratively transferred). Excellent teachers such as Michelle and many others at 24th., as well as other schools, have gotten lumped into this media feeding frenzy. Although I was not there while Michelle was UTLA rep., I know she served the teachers well and truthfully. It is a difficult job to be sure. Personally, I am proud to be a teacher, proud to have had a part in the hiring of many good teachers at 24th. St. and proud to be a part of their family!

  8. Debra Glenn
    September 27th, 2010 @ 4:07 pm

    I was a classroom teacher for 37 years and recently retired. I know from experience that teachers like Michelle are a rarity, not because they lack the desire, but because public education drains teachers of their need to reach deep into the souls of these children and address their needs. Public education has attached one measure of success to teachers and to children. Fortunately, we are all not one dimensional, as ‘the powers that rule’ see our teachers and our children.
    I applaud Michelle and teachers who have the confidence and strength to address what children really need. Students of today need a strong, caring, passionate educator who loves what they do, knows that all children can be successful and teaches through everyday life experiences to be productive, independent learners and good citizens of the world.
    I was also fortunate enough at one time to be one of Michelle’s teachers. She is truly one of the best!

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