My Mom hated big bridges. She held her breath until the car hit the other side. Sometimes she even took long detours so that she wouldn't have to cross a bridge.

Until the day she died, she always said the same thing when we crossed a bridge - "I hope the engineer that built this got an "A" in school."

Actually, I understand that opinion very well. I feel the same way - not only about bridge engineers, but also doctors and teachers.

If I'm going to lie on an operating table, I want the person with the scalpel to be very smart. And, when I send my child into a teacher's classroom for nine months, I want that educator to be smart, too.

Someone once said, "An incompetent teacher is even worse than an incompetent surgeon, because an incompetent surgeon can only cut up one person at a time."

No one can dispute the fact that surgeons deal in matters of life and death. Nothing affects a human being more than "going under the knife." But, as critical as a surgeon's job is, I believe that the job of a teacher is just as critical.

A doctor may save a life, but a teacher helps to create a life. There would be no doctors without teachers in medical school. Without good teachers for every profession, incompetence would flourish.

I suppose it's fairly easy to identify incompetent surgeons. Their patients die or suffer greatly. But, identifying incompetent teachers is much harder. I suppose there are many facets to an incompetent teacher, but I would like to offer the five I consider most important.

1. Lack of skill: If a teacher doesn't know HOW to teach, students won't learn.

2. Lack of desire: If the teacher has no enthusiasm for the job, the pupils will not be affected positively.

3. Lack of knowledge: No one can learn from a teacher who doesn't know the basic elements of his/her subject.

4. Lack of commitment: If the teacher does the bare minimum, students will suffer.

5. Lack of leadership: If the teacher has no one to "set him on fire" or keep him growing professionally, he will be adrift without purpose. This task normally falls to the building principal.

An incompetent teacher can hide away in a classroom for years. Why? Poor teaching is not always immediately observable. Sometimes, years can go by before a pattern of incompetence is identified.

With doctors, incompetence is much more quickly observed. The American Medical Association has excellent ways to assess quality control in its members. Not only that, but also the general population usually knows the "A" and "F" doctors through experience and gossip.

With teachers, their unions seem to protect members who are considered poor teachers. Just watch how fast the ranks close in support of a teacher who has received negative evaluations from an administrator.

An incompetent lawyer loses cases. That's part of the public record. An incompetent doctor loses patients and credibility. An incompetent engineer builds a bridge that collapses.

But, an incompetent educator can systematically ruin a child's classroom experience without discovery for quite a while.

One sure-fire way to discover an incompetent teacher is to listen to the children who have been assigned to that teacher's classroom. "I didn't learn anything from him," or "He couldn't help me understand it," or "I never understood my homework," or "When I asked for help he didn't have time," are all quotes that can point a finger at an incompetent instructor.

Weeding out incompetent teachers is a difficult job. Too bad there is no physical evidence - such as collapsed bridges, large jury awards, or botched operations. As much as I love teachers, I am realistic enough to know that much.

IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO CONACT DR. SMITH, SHE CAN BE REACHED AT HER EMAIL ADDRESS: JSMITH1313@CFL.RR.COM [1] OR IN CARE OF THIS NEWSPAPER