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“Of course,” replies the principal.
“What makes you think that?” asks the teacher.
“Well, I can tell from being around you that you really care about your students and their success.”
This is the basic conversation that occurs everywhere. Where students succeed, credit is given to the student and the teacher. Where a student fails, the responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of the student. They haven’t taken responsibility for their learning, they haven’t tried hard enough, they haven’t been paying attention, they haven’t made good choices, they haven’t chosen the right crowd to hang out with, even. Or, blame can be placed on the so-called “digital age”; computers distract students from learning, TV distracts students from reading, texting distracts students from actual human interaction. But recent studies are showing that the single most important factor in student success or failure is having a good teacher. How do we tell the good teachers from the bad ones?
Students are judged almost continuously from the time they enter school in kindergarten until the time they graduate. Teachers are not. There are very few times in a teacher’s career that they will be judged on their performance using quantitative methods. (There are even fewer times when this judgment will have any significant impact on their career, which is another matter.) This is true because there are some widespread assumptions about what makes a good teacher, and because based on those faulty assumptions methods for evaluating teacher performance have been misguided.
Let’s face those assumptions.
Teachers are good if they care about their students. Teachers are sometimes cast in the role of care-giver, counselor, friend or surrogate parent. They oversee a child’s development, and many times have more face-to-face time with students than the actual parents. One would think that what makes a good care-giver is that they care, and this is probably true in many cases. On the other hand, teaching is not primarily about caring. If the role of the teacher is guide, however, care might play a role or it might not. If I am a camping guide, I can care in general about the value of human life and hence instruct my fellow campers in safety guidelines and techniques for camping success. I’ll be a very popular camping guide if I can do that and foster a sense of well-being and “fun” (for lack of a better word) in my group, as well. So certainly, care in general and for the individual is probably a part of what it means to be a good teacher. But teachers are like bartenders. They say that 90% of bartending is being a good listener, or being a conversationalist, or being wise, or whatever. If you think the barkeep cares about you, you are more likely to sit in front of them and let loose your alcohol-addled problems in their direction. You’re also more likely to tip, I would imagine. But the bartender doesn’t have to actually care about you, and in fact, their job could be replicated fairly well using a robot or a fancy vending machine. The experience of sitting at the bar would be lessened, but you would get just as drunk.
Take this to the extreme: robot teachers. Of course, as with many creepy extremes, you will find them in Japan. (Give me a break, it’s kind of true.) So, there’s a robot teacher, with no internal care mechanism: a zombie teacher, if you will. If you remove the humanoid characteristics of the zombie teacher, and realize that robots aren’t up to snuff when dealing with squealing elementary kids, what you have is a computer training course. Computer directed self-study. The computer prompts you to remember certain things or learn a concept. Then it asks you to practice using that concept in various situations. At the end, it assesses how well you can apply that concept. Ironically, you can get certified as a teacher using this very process through the American Board of Certification for Teacher Excellence. Care is not a necessary condition for good teaching, although it helps to motivate the teacher and can make a classroom a socially inviting place to be, which in turn could motivate students. On the other hand, you can learn by interacting with a computer program.
Summary: A teacher doesn’t have to care, but it’s probably better if they do.
Teachers are good if they work hard. This is obviously unsound reasoning. If a teacher is clueless, it’s a bit like they’re running on a treadmill: they can go as fast and as hard as they want, they won’t get anywhere. On other hand, for a teacher who “knows what they are doing” (this is the target concept, isn’t it?) then working hard is a good thing. We can reasonably assume that student learning will improve because of the teacher’s hard work. The appearance of “working hard” is also related to an individual’s abilities. Some people make it look easy. One person lifts the piano through a gargantuan effort, Arnold bends down and picks it up with his pinky toe. Effort is good, but misdirected or inefficient effort is useless. Simply working hard is not a necessary or sufficient condition for being a good teacher.
Summary: Working hard isn’t enough. You have to know what you’re doing, silly.
Teachers are good if they have education credentials. Well, George W. Bush graduated from Yale. On the other hand, part of the drama of the US presidency, or any world leadership position, is that there is no president training course. Will they succeed? Will they fail? It’s up in the air, and fun (or horrifying, as the case may be) to observe. I’m sure every teacher knows someone who has credentials up the wazoo but displays wild incompetence. The world is choc-full of idiots with fat resumes. Studies suggest that master’s degrees in education – that’s graduate school, people – do nothing to predict a teacher’s success as measured by typical standardized test scores. Majoring in your subject area – not in the teaching of your subject area – is a better predictor of success. So, content knowledge appears to be something solid we can point to.
Summary: Education degrees, ironically, don’t seem to do a good job of teaching people what they need to know to be a good teacher. Content is king.
Teachers are good if they have lots of experience. Paradoxically, this may not be the case. Most pay scales use years of teaching experience (along with strength of credentials, see #3) to determine salaries. But some studies have shown that new teachers can be more effective than very experienced teachers. This makes sense. A new teacher might be more focused on continual improvement, generally less set in their ways, more open to change and reform. An experienced teacher will have found the path of least resistance (there’s that working hard thing) and will gradually or suddenly lose the motivation to improve or maintain performance. Because teachers aren’t being evaluated in any meaningful way, an individual teacher will lose interest in improving. Decisions begin to be about how to avoid grief from administrators, parents and students, rather than how to improve student learning. If you are an experienced teacher, don’t fit the mold. Put yourself into the mindset of a fresh, newly minted teacher. How can you shake up your methods? How can you be more organized, better planned, more in touch with individual student needs? How can you be happier with your job? Teachers can’t necessarily rely on decades of experience to make them better. If you’ll forgive a shameless metaphor, a teacher is not a bottle of Bordeaux, but 40 bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau. You don’t keep the one costly bottle in the cellar only to open it decades later and taste vinegar. You open the fresh bottle every year. Seriously, you can’t go wrong with Beaujolais. (They know that in Japan, that’s for sure.)
Summary: Experience does not a good teacher make.
So, a good teacher is not necessarily the most caring, hard-working, well-credentialed, experienced person. But these are the best ways we currently have of deciding whether or not to hire a teacher, or to praise them, or whatever. Incidentally, you have to be a total blockhead or criminal to get fired from most teaching gigs, which probably attracts a certain set of people to the profession, aside from those of us who have a genuine interest in doing this job, and doing it well.
How do we figure out what a good teacher looks like? Do we just wait around until we spot one? Do we say that there are no good teachers and bad teachers, only good students and bad students? Do we go on deluding ourselves that we are all good teachers?
This Atlantic Monthly article has some illuminating tidbits concerning the positive answers to these questions. The WA is working on a piece about current research in the area of teacher effectiveness. Until then, comment on the assumptions above, add your own thoughts, and send in further assumptions that ought to be questioned.
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