What would happen if all of the teachers at a school were "super teachers"? In most school buildings, you can usually find one or two teachers who are outstanding. They are the ones who always have their students excited and wanting to come to school.
In 1975, the American international school in Hong Kong recruited 15 new teachers from across the United States. That international school essentially cherry-picked the best and brought them to an expanding K-12 complex in Repulse Bay in Hong Kong.
The overseas American families found themselves overwhelmed. Their students from kindergarten to senior high school were "turned on" and wanted to be in far more than any 24-hour day allowed. There was Model United Nations and science fairs and theater and music events. After school field trips were piled on top of each other. Students could not attend them all, but they wanted to.
This overseas school served the children of consulate officials as well as overseas corporate families: Union Carbide, Caterpillar, Exxon, and many other big name companies. It was the center of life for both students and their families. These were highly motivated parents, paid two or three times their stateside salary to live and work overseas. Attendance at parent-teacher meetings was always 100 percent. But we saw those parents anyway at after-school and evening events. Yes, this was not a bell-shaped distribution of students. All graduated. And all went on to quality colleges and universities.
At the end of that year of super teachers, the head of school confided in us an interesting fact: drug use among students had essentially disappeared. Hong Kong, a major international free port, has always seen a bustling traffic in illegal drugs and particularly heroin. Unlike in the U.S., the drugs are not "cut" but are full strength and cheap. Among all of the junior and senior high schools across that pre-1997 British colony—whether they were British or Chinese or Communist schools—drug addiction was always a concern for those students with money.
But for a few years, drug use essentially disappeared. And it was "super teachers" that did it. These passionate teachers got their kids excited about meaningful things in life. The students had no need, desire or time to mess with drugs. They were already "high" on the exciting things they wanted to do the next day, the next week, the next month—in school.
The amazing part of this anti-drug effect was that the teachers did not consciously spend one second of time addressing drug abuse. It was all done by focusing on the excitement of learning. These teachers of course helped their students achieve academically, and without any need for external standards or testing.
This effect slowly went away, both as the super teachers dispersed and also as the international school served more single-parent families and special needs students, and had a more bell-shaped curve of achievement. To me, the lesson was clear. Super teachers can decrease drug use and increase academic performance by getting kids "high" on life. But the question remains: can super teachers save our schools today?
A recent Wall Street Journal piece is titled: "Super Teachers Alone Can't Save Our Schools."
According to author Steven Brill: "Extraordinary educators are rare and often burn out. To save our schools...we have to demand more from ordinary teachers...." He follows several super teachers and shows their burn out in charter schools, trying to make AYP under the current testing tyranny.
Indeed many excellent veteran teachers have forsaken our assembly line test-prep systems. If I was permitted to establish a school that again allowed teachers to make the professional decisions about what to teach, how to teach, and when to teach it, there are scores of passionate super teachers who would return to teach in such a school.
But the current school system is one that discourages super teachers and uses the drudgery of test-prep to drive students to drop out and perhaps find another "high."