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In recent years public education and more specifically public school teachers have come under attack from the so-called “school reform” movement. This movement, rooted in conservative and corporate ideology, links teacher accountability and student achievement, to high-stakes testing. And it has fueled a culture of demonization and blame of public school teachers throughout the nation. This got me thinking about the teacher who had the largest impact on my own “achievement”. My high school United States history teacher, Ms. Dawson.

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Ms. Dawson was not like other teachers. Instead of giving out textbooks the first day of class we watched a film about a neo-Nazi group holding a rally in a Jewish community, where many survivors of the Holocaust lived. After viewing the film, we, as class, engaged in a discourse about First Amendment rights and its impact on that community.

As the year went on I realized that Ms. Dawson taught US history through current events, films, articles and class discussions. Throughout the year, we examined the complexities of politics, violence, gender, discrimination, racism, poverty, oppression and government in both an historical and contemporary context. And we never did get those textbooks.

Ms. Dawson’s class was not about memorizing and spitting back information on multiple choice tests. Her class was about building our reading, writing, speaking, listening and critical thinking skills. It was about exposing us to different perspectives and helping us to understand abstract concepts such as: equality, freedom, fairness and justice.

For me her class was transformative. It was in her class that I began to enjoy learning. I began to read the newspaper and engage in conversations with adults about social and political issues. Ms. Dawson encouraged me to read non-fiction books, which opened my mind and heart to other experiences. And she taught me that writing could be used as a tool of self-expression and social change.

Frank McAlpin: Ms. Dawson’s class was not about memorizing and spitting back information on multiple choice tests. Her class was about building our reading, writing, speaking, listening and critical thinking skills.

But most importantly Ms. Dawson encouraged me, and all her students, to become socially responsible citizens. Citizens who engage in public discourse, care for one another and try to make the world a better place.

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This idea of social responsibility, of making the world a better place, had a profound impact on me. It motivated me to engage community service. It helped me find the courage to be proud of who I am and stand up for what I believe. It led me to pursue degrees in teaching and social work. It inspired me to become a Peace Corps volunteer. Even today, almost thirteen years later, social responsibility is one of my core values.

In the current school reform movement, where America’s teachers are disrespected and blamed for the failures of public education and where there is strong push towards high stakes testing, measurable results and teacher accountability, I can’t help but think about Ms. Dawson. And the countless other Ms. Dawson’s out there.

They are the teachers who are called “untraditional” “radical” and “controversial”. They are teachers who teach their students skills not facts. They are teachers who push their students to think and feel differently about themselves and the world around them. They are teachers who change student’s lives on daily basis. And because of this, they are teachers who change the world.

The reality is that the impact a teacher has on their student’s “achievement” is everlasting and often never is fully known. It seems to me that the “school reform” movement should spend more time and resources building teachers up than tearing them down. And should do everything possible to encourage and cultivate the Ms. Dawson’s of the world. Because those are the kinds of teachers we want in America’s classrooms.

It is the influence of the Ms. Dawson’s that encourage students to become engaged in learning, more confident, empathetic and open-minded. It is the kind of influence that shapes lives and years later inspires them to become volunteers, social workers and engaged community members. And it is the influence of the Ms. Dawson’s, far beyond the walls of the classroom or the pages of a textbook, that help to create a better world.

I want to thank Ms. Dawson and all those teachers like her. Teachers who understand that true student achievement is not measured by high test scores but instead is realized in the character of their students and the kind of society these students will create.


Frank McAlpin