Wayne Furman, M.D. came into my family's life in an unexpected way. My niece Allison was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, an aggressive childhood cancer in February 2010. Dr. Furman became her doctor at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Neuroblastoma diagnosed after age 1 has between a 10% and 40% cure rate. I wonder why anyone would choose a career where the cure rate is below 50%. However, Dr. Furman goes to work everyday researching and trying to figure out how to increase that cure rate. I am happy to report Dr. Furman and his colleagues are making tremendous strides in the treatment of neuroblastoma. Allison is running around, cancer free at this very moment.
When Jacy was six weeks old, she had lost weight, was yet to sleep more than two consecutive hours, and I was losing my mind. Enter Dana Fakouri, pediatrician and lifesaver. Dr. Fakouri took my phone call at 2 a.m. Jacy was not her patient at the time, but my friend called for me and Dr. Fakouri called me back. The next morning at 7:30, she met me, examined our child, and changed her to formula. Jacy slept 11 hours straight and I began to think maybe I could do this mom thing after all. Dr. Fakouri has cured Jacy of colds, disjointed elbows, poison ivy, a cut lip, and wounded ears. I suspect her cure rate is almost perfect. She is a wonderful doctor. I wish she took grown ups.
I use these two people as an example of a profession, which works with people. Interestingly enough, humans are unique and have very individual needs. Dr. Furman was constantly examining, testing, and refining Allison's treatments. He met her needs based on his observations and his team's discussions. Her treatment was unique to her needs. Dr. Fakouri has treated Jacy with standard medicine as most of her health-related needs are normal and need little specialization. The treatment has always worked without flaw.
If we were to publish the cure rates of these two doctors with nothing but their names and the cure rates, you would think Dr. Furman should be suspended from practicing medicine. Dr. Fakouri, on the other hand, would be exalted. Yet, examining the facts finds that both doctors are amazing and wonderful. Each has a very special place in my family's hearts. Both contribute to their profession and make moms smile. I thank God every day for Dr. Fakouri and how she has taken care of our daughters. I thank God every day for Dr. Furman and his willingness to work with a very aggressive type of childhood cancer.
Before we fall into a place in Louisiana where every moment a teacher spends with a child is narrowed down to a single score, we should consider the lessons our medical friends can teach us. Children are all unique. Some come to us from strong and supportive homes with parents who have read to them since before birth. These parents may be wealthy, middle-class, or impoverished, but they understand the necessity to teach their children and set high expectations. Then there are the children who come to us from homes where parents are loving, but do not understand how to help their children succeed in school. Other children come from homes where there may be a parent or not. They have no assistance, possibly go hungry, or even worse live in an unsafe environment. Some children come to school with learning disabilities, emotional disabilities, or behavioral issues. Some students have physical impairments. Some children simply come to school to eat and be safe.
In a class of 25 students, each child has a unique set of needs, which a teacher must diagnose, treat, and revise on a moment-by-moment basis. When two or three students have moderate to moderately sever needs, the classroom can be in interesting place. However imagine classes where 90% are reading three or four grade-levels below normal, 50% have emotional/behavior issues, and another 25% have learning disabilities. Then add the fact a 100% come from impoverished homes and 60% will go to home without consistent parental support each night. Finally, consider the majority of these children have buried at least one family member to violence in the past 12 months.
I have taught in rural schools, a suburban school, and several inner-city schools. Each of the positions has certain aspects, which made the job intense and rewarding. I have never had an "easy" teaching job, but I can promise my "cure" rates are extremely varied and correlate with the level of need of the children I have taught.
I support teacher accountability and I believe we should raise expectations of not only students, but also of the people we recruit to teach children. What I fear is the generic scoring of teachers will lead to teachers avoiding teaching the children with the most difficult needs, because the "cure" rates will not stack up to children who come to school ready to learn from fully supportive homes. There are so many variables to consider. We must develop a system, which will encourage teachers to take on the difficult cases without fear of retribution or loss of employment. We need to create schools, which are research sites for challenging cases, like St. Jude is for childhood cancer. We need teachers who are researchers who publish and share their work. These teachers must feel free to make mistakes, make decisions, and try new things without fear of being unemployed. "Cures" are not invented in top-down institutions where teachers teach from canned programs with prescribed scripts, but rather where teachers become researchers and develop their craft with precision and wisdom. These teachers teach children to learn to think and also to believe.
We have an opportunity to create something amazing in this state. All children deserve an equal chance, which is provided by meeting their needs every day, in every class. The system being created must consider how to encourage teachers to work with the most difficult students without fear. The system must recruit the best and the brightest to the teaching field by changing how our culture views educators. We, the teachers, must police our own profession and admit some teachers are not effective and should not be teaching. We must act like professionals and set our own high quality professional standards. We must stop complaining and start sharing what we do in a positive manner. Teaching is not an exact science, because humans are not exactly alike. We must step up and have honest, professional discussions with politicians and the public about what we do. We create the future and the public needs us, but we also need the public.
I am a teacher, which in a single word, sums up my passions and my belief in the future.