Guest Column

Success Means Our Graduates Give Back

by Gary A. Burton

When interviewing a prospective teacher, I typically ask a series of prepared questions and listen carefully to the candidate's answers. I want the candidate to do most of the talking so I can form an impression of that individual and decide whether we'll offer employment with the school district.

As superintendent, I've come to realize that the most important decisions I make center around the selection of classroom instructors.

In my view, the seriousness of hiring good teachers can't be overestimated. Employment decisions easily overshadow those regarding the number of students assigned to a class, the selection of what textbooks to use, the subject to be taught and a host of other factors that have a direct impact on a child's school experience. These are significant variables, but all pale in comparison to whom we allow to teach our children.

Grasping for Answers

During a recent interview, a candidate asked me a completely unexpected question. Suddenly our roles were reversed, and I found myself squirming a little as I quickly tried to answer in a way that would impress her. The question was innocent enough, though I've conducted enough interviews to know that answers to simple questions are often the most challenging. The candidate asked me, "How do you know if the local schools are successful in educating children?"

Answers that sprang immediately to mind included our impressive Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System scores, our unusually high college acceptance rates and the awards and scholarships that our students have earned. These are impressive benchmarks that I report annually to the school board, parents, the state, college admission officers and local real estate agents. Each statistic reflects favorably on the schools and serves as a concrete measure of our success.

I also considered mentioning our ability to recruit and retain outstanding teachers, many of whom will spend their entire professional careers in this community. Our teaching salaries are among the highest in the state, and I am always pleased to point this out to prospective candidates. It's tangible proof that the citizens of Wayland appreciate and respect us as educators. Plus, it's common knowledge among educators that a stable work force promotes higher levels of student learning.

I was tempted to divulge our near-perfect daily student attendance percentages, an annual student dropout rate that is often zero, the absence of vandalism on our school campuses and the fact few children in the district can be labeled "troubled." As educators, we treat our students with respect, afford them considerable liberty and encourage them to act responsibly. We're seldom disappointed with their behavior.

I wanted the candidate to know that parent involvement in school activities, which one might expect to be high at the primary grades, is unusually high right through high school. Active parent teacher organizations, other school organizations and the presence of school volunteers demonstrate a commitment to children. A time-tested formula for school success is parents and teachers working together cooperatively.

True Benchmarks

There are other ways to judge a school's effectiveness, many of which are not as easily measured by test scores or end-of-the-year reports.

Unsolicited letters of praise to the local newspaper editor about individual teachers or students are one example. Evidence of community service performed by school-aged children is another. In addition to ensuring academic success, outstanding schools also help develop a sense of social responsibility within each child. The number of people who choose to vote in elections may be a valid reflection on the public schools.

Ultimately, I chose to respond to the candidate this way. If 10 years after our students have graduated from college and secured good jobs, they recognize the benefits of their upbringing and school experiences and decide to give something back to their school or community at large, we will have been successful.

I would like our graduates, as adults, to look back upon their school experiences and realize they must now help others in whatever ways seem appropriate. In many situations, this will mean helping people whom they have never seen and will never meet. If our former students can do this willingly, then we can, as their teachers and advisers, claim success for having helped educate them.

Gary Burton is superintendent of Wayland Public Schools, P.O. Box 408, Wayland, Mass. 01778. E-mail: gary_burton@wayland.k12.ma.us