What Teresita Lemus can teach us


The remarkable achievements of American educator Teresita Lemus should be celebrated, but we cannot rely on the hero teacher model to run our education systems, says Alex Wood.

A recent report from the US (Miami Herald, December 29, 2013) reminded us of inspiring teachers. Miami maths teacher, Teresita Lemus, was recently named one of 10 Nobel Educators of the Year by the National Society of High School Scholars.

“I’m not teaching them calculus, I’m teaching them how to think,” Ms Lemus said. She calls maths “pretty” and has convinced her students that arc lengths, trigonometric identities and logarithmic derivatives are pretty.

Her exam pass rates are phenomenal. 

“You can look at her passing rate and know she’s a great teacher, but it goes beyond that,” said student Sanchit Bhattacharjee. “It’s a combination of how much math she knows and how much she coaches and pushes us.”

After 20 years of high school teaching, Lemus is now also an adjunct professor at three Florida universities.

Principal Lisa Robertson praised Lemus’s commitment: “She’s here before school and late into the afternoon, after the rest of the teachers have gone home. She’s on call 24/7 to support and mentor students. I just wish she could be cloned for all schools to have the privilege of working with her.”

Over the course of our careers most of us have met a few Teresitas. Their subject knowledge is second-to-none and their exemplary pedagogy inspires learners.

Where principal, Ms Robertson, has it wrong is her desire to clone Teresita. Such teachers are indeed outstanding but they are also unique and individual. 

It certainly takes a unique, some might say eccentric, genius not only to believe that logarithmic derivatives are pretty but to convince their students of the same. Even the very best maths teachers with whom I’ve worked didn’t quite hit that target. Those who are doing what Teresita does can’t be cloned.

The principal is also pursuing a work model which, if widely adopted, would guarantee professional burn-out. “I never sit down,” Teresita said. “The one day I lay down, my husband joked that we had to go to the hospital because something had to be wrong.”

We need inspiring teachers but not Stakhanovites. The idea of the heroic model, working at a pace to inspire colleagues to emulate and exceed the model’s output, has been discredited in the former Soviet regimes. It is ironic to see it emerge in the free market west.

Of course we should stand in awe of the Teresita Lemuses of the teaching world.  We should admire them, congratulate them and take pleasure in the awards they achieve. 

There are however better ways to raise the standards of all our teaching than simply pointing to the outstanding practitioner and instructing (or at least encouraging) every other teacher to emulate these rare, and perhaps driven, individuals.

For one thing, teaching is predicated on individual relationships. No human being can successfully import another human being’s relationship model as if it were a computer programme to be moved from one PC to another.  

What we can do is observe, analyse and borrow from what one fellow teacher does well and if it appears that it can be accommodated into our own personal methodology; and then seek other colleagues from whom to learn different tricks which can also then be integrated.

Most teachers have real strengths and professional skills. Not all teachers have the same strengths and skills. All teachers can learn from each other. That’s why the medical rounds model is gaining enormous credibility as a route to professional development. 

Cooperative professional learning and the pooling of skills and expertise is a far better development tool than putting super-heroes on a pedestal and telling the rest of the world to emulate them. 

  • Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.


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