The Perfect Teacher Doesn’t Exi—

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A new semester brings with it the long, arduous process of program changes. Thousands of students exchange courses, teachers, and schedules in the bi-annual rush to get the perfect program. Last year, to deal with these overwhelming demands, the program office implemented an online system called Talos for schedule requests and changes. The new website brought with it an added element of paranoia to the process, as multiple Facebook advice groups for Stuyvesant students were flooded with questions like the following: “How does one survive in X’s class?”; “How’s the homework load for Y?”; or “How can I get into Z’s class with a low average?”—among others.

It’s clear that Stuyvesant students are divided on which qualities constitute a good class or teacher. Based on the questions posted on Facebook, some of the most common characteristics students favor are easy (or at least manageable) tests, plenty of one-on-one feedback, and comprehensive preparation for finals, Regents, and AP exams. But many students are also drawn to less concrete qualities. Some want their teachers to provide more emotional guidance and support, and others appreciate fair assessment of tests, projects, and class participation.

The wide variety of standards among teachers only leads to further confusion among the student body and program office. Without clearly articulating what qualities make a “good” teacher, students cannot expect the administration to facilitate meaningful reform in hiring or assigning teachers. If the criteria for a “good” teacher aren’t universal, how should students manage their expectations? What should the administration do to meet their demands? Does a “good” teacher have an obligation to be nice? And in the end, is it the students themselves or the teachers who are responsible for the grades received?

These questions—and their answers—are rooted in Stuyvesant’s competitive atmosphere. Many students attribute our school’s stress-laden academic environment to the many hours of homework and studying that classes require, and more often, to what they deem an unreasonable or unnecessarily strict teacher. Every year, students get to vent these feelings about the school environment in anonymous surveys, which ask students if they believe that their teachers would support them if they were visibly upset in class. In Stuyvesant’s 2017-2018 survey results, only 52 percent of students said this was the case. A little more than half the student population believe that their teachers would provide academic or emotional help to students falling behind in class. These results would suggest that some teachers fail to recognize the obstacles their students face—or that they disregard them entirely. In addition, the opaque nature of Stuyvesant's grading system creates an unfair academic environment for teachers and students alike. Students often rely on grading curves, dropped tests, and rough estimates to figure out what their overall average will be. The widespread practice of curving among the faculty heavily affects program changes, as most students will seek out teachers with “legendary” curves.

The disparity in grading among the faculty, sometimes within the same department, is further exacerbated by the administration of department finals. As the recent controversy surrounding the physics final exam showed, the variety of teaching styles and lack of a unified curriculum affect students’ academic experiences. After it surfaced that students in one teacher’s class had been granted access to some of the questions on the final, many other classes demanded that the exam be dropped. Though the students who had access to the test questions did not know that they would be repeated on the final, the incident represents a serious lapse of coordination on the part of the physics department. It also represents the larger need for unity, direction, and clarity in Stuyvesant's grading and testing systems.

A universal grading platform for all students (for all classes and departments) would go a long way toward addressing the issue, as it would allow for grades to be constantly updated and teachers to be transparent about grading rubrics. Websites like JupiterEd even go so far as to break down the weight by percentage of each component of a student's grade: tests, homework, classwork, and participation. This makes it ideal as an online grading tool. In summary, a unified system would increase grading transparency, standardize the wide varieties of subject curricula and teaching styles, and streamline the administration of departmental finals.

Beyond the concrete proposal to create more uniform and coordinated approaches to teaching and grading, students would also benefit from teachers who consider the well-being of their students more generally. In its most basic form, high school students still need teachers who have a friendly demeanor and want to engage with students—both inside and outside of the classroom. During class, students should feel safe asking any question, without feeling nervous about a possible hostile reaction from a teacher. Outside of class, students should feel that when they approach their teachers, they will be open and even interested in conversation. This expectation should not be confused as a request for teachers to serve as guidance counselors, since teachers ultimately aren't guidance counselors. However, as influential adults in students’ lives, teachers should still care about their students’ state of mind. Guidance counselors cannot be students’ lone sources of emotional support. Indeed, all of the Stuyvesant community should take an active interest in students’ emotional well-being. After all, there is a lot of truth in the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

Nobody disputes the quality of education that students receive at Stuyvesant; it is arguably the best in New York City. However, as the recent frenzy over program changes demonstrates, students have strong feelings about what constitutes a good or bad class and teacher. For students, better classes are ones that use a universal grading platform, are transparent about how grades are calculated, teach a standard curriculum, and have a friendly and supportive classroom environment. These modest proposals would go a long way toward making students feel that the particular teacher to whom they have been assigned is not such a consequential matter. Having the security of knowing that one’s teacher, like all other teachers in a department, will meet these criteria will create less stress and anxiety during program changes and throughout the whole year. Ultimately, such a scenario would benefit the entire Stuyvesant community.