For as long as humans have been able to communicate with each other, we have had teachers, those attempting to help others to increase their knowledge more rapidly than relying totally on first-hand experience. Yet despite our millenniums of practice, we have yet to figure out what makes one person better than someone else at this ancient practice. It seems counterintuitive that given the billions and billions we spend educating our children that we still don’t understand how to detect and evaluate so crucial a skill. These two reports, “Peering Around the Corner” and “No Guarantees,” published this past winter by Bellwether Education Partners, however, come to exactly that conclusion.
In these papers, the authors looked at eleven different states in order to assess how well the various hoops that prospective and current teachers have to leap through in order to begin or continue teaching classes work. The goal (and probably assumption) was that a careful study of the various ways we attempt to make sure that our teachers teach effectively would yield the key components of that which makes teachers better. Their conclusion (a summary of which can be found in this article based on the reports as well as this newspaper account) was that, “We don’t yet know how to identify or train good teachers.” Despite licensure, teacher education programs, evaluation systems, in-service institutes, and hundreds of experts touting various different paths to teaching excellence (all of which generate heaps of revenue for the providers, often at taxpayer expense), the only useful predictor on how good teachers are going to be this year is how good they were last year. And for those new to teaching, there isn’t any difference-making training that would accurately ensure a first-year teacher would be successful. Yep, we spend billions and billions on standardized tests and training programs that don’t improve current teachers or predict who will be any good.
This comes as no surprise to those of us who have been claiming “artist” status for teachers for many years. Teaching requires such an intense combination of contradictory traits—obsessive organization has to co-exist with the necessary flexibility to adapt to current conditions. (If that makes no sense to you, then you’ve never had the joy of trying to conduct a lesson that needed careful concentration during a period when the first significant snowfall occurs. And no, I never taught below eighth grade, with the last twenty-five years spent in a high school—teenagers are just as distracted by crystalized water falling from the sky as kindergarteners.) You need to have a passion for your subject matter as well as being able to relate to the things that matter to your students, which is generally anything but your subject matter. Every day, you face from twenty-five to one hundred fifty kids with the goal of having unique, individual interactions with as many of them as you can as well as meeting educational standards often imposed by those who know nothing about your students. No day or class period will be anywhere close to the same as the day before, no matter how diligently you try to replicate previous successes. Most importantly, every day, your kids come to you expecting consistent professionalism, enthusiasm, and talent, despite their being all over the place in their emotions, motivation, and willingness to cooperate.
Of course nobody could find a system that could address all those skills, much less provide readily digested steps that would guarantee improvement in those expected to possess them. In my eBook, Snowflake Schools, I argue that the key traits any aspiring teacher should have are a good work ethic, creativity, self-discipline, communication skills, and a “Golden Rule” morality. Those qualities can only be assessed over the long haul; you can’t determine if people will consistently behave in those ways unless you observe them for months and years. And we all know those qualities don’t come easily—we have to fight to maintain them and will have periods where we are more successful in their execution than others. It’s a fool’s errand to try to in-service teachers on a good work ethic, for example. Yes, you could definitely provide expert help on some techniques your teachers might not have considered—especially for those new to the profession—but you couldn’t “make” them work harder if they weren’t driven to do so.
We also have to recognize that we can’t expect artists to conform to one set pattern of behavior. The quest for uniform teacher performance ignores the unique abilities and personalities every human has. Some teachers are very orderly, controlled, and matter-of-fact; some will be more spontaneous, funny, and wacky; and some will scare the living snot out of students without saying a word. All those types can be excellent instructors who might have a positive impact on your child. Teaching is not a popularity contest, and many kids need that tough task-master to push them harder while others flourish with a caring, supportive soul who remembers everybody’s birthday and always gives out treats around holidays. Like any relationship, some of our characteristics will mesh and others clash with our friends, family, and workmates. Teachers exist in a nebulous area somewhere between and part of all three of those categories, and you children will see them at various times as “buddy,” “boss,” and “relative,” with all the connotations those labels bring. No, teachers don’t exist completely in any of those realms and the Venn diagram for any individual teacher will tilt more toward one than the other two, but once you recognize how complex that dynamic is, you can begin to understand how impossible it is to provide step-by-step instruction for teachers to improve. Maybe one teacher needs some work on his empathy while another could get better at using her free time to plan for future classes while a third has troubles with classroom discipline while the next is way behind in the technology necessary to make the material much more interesting and accessible but the next…
Just as students with learning disabilities or behavioral disorders must have “Individualized Education Plans” (IEPs) crafted and evaluated every year by their special education teachers/case managers, every teacher’s improvement plan is unique to that particular teacher. That certainly doesn’t mean there’s no place for teacher institutes and opportunities for teachers to be exposed to new ideas. It does mean, however, that the school climate needs to recognize how many different ways there are to be an effective teacher so that those new ideas/techniques/insights are presented as concepts to be considered, not THE way things now need to be done. No matter how many PowerPoint slides are shown, how many catchy acronyms are coined, or how much administrative arm-twisting is used; teachers will assimilate other ideas into their systems much the way we all take in food. Some will be delicious and immediately incorporated into our regular diets, some will revolt us and be rejected forever, and some will have a few interesting flavors that we will revisit only after altering the recipe and/or preparation methods.
But the overall approach should flow from the foundation that only the individual teacher will be able to figure out if the basic ingredients show any promise at all. A teacher’s rejecting suggested methodology should not just be tolerated, but encouraged. Only when teachers are trusted to know that which will be most effective for their classrooms can outsiders have the slightest chance of helping them with modifications and changes that could help them improve. It should come as no surprise that most experts have no clue on training good teachers. It’s an idiotic question in the first place. Good teaching comes from good teachers and there are countless ways to be one.
I recognize that this seems a totally self-serving and ridiculously convenient view, especially coming from someone who used to be a teacher. “Yeah, right, Jim—no matter what a teacher does, as you’ve outlined it here, you will find a glib way to make it seem okay. That’s precisely the lack of accountability which has led to teachers and their unions being perceived as status quo guardians who couldn’t care less about how well our kids learn as long as everyone accepts that they know best. There has to be a way to determine if a teacher is capable of performing your so-called ‘art’ well enough to justify the huge salaries you believe they should earn. You’ve already praised tenure laws and unions despite their protecting the incompetent, and you have ceaselessly denigrated the only objective means of assessing teacher quality—standardized tests—as poor measures of student learning. With that kind of impenetrable protection, incompetent teachers can continue to be horrible their entire careers, leading to the mediocrity we’ve endured ever since collective bargaining laws gave teachers and unions preferential treatment. And don’t get me started on your obscene pension plans, of which you are currently benefitting! C’mon!”
Okay, that’s quite a lot for me to cover, despite its being a self-created rhetorical barrage which should normally consist of a lot more softball questions. Believe it or not, I do have responses to all of that, but there’s no way I could adequately discuss them in a single blog entry. (And I have countered those criticisms before in other blog entries—many of which you could find on this site.) However, in the near future, I will try to deal with the key issue analyzed in this particular essay—how can you differentiate between a good teacher and a bad one. There are unmistakable characteristics that, despite all my emphasis on different teaching styles being valuable, should be absolute necessities and which are observable, thus capable of being assessed in order to rid the teaching profession of those who shouldn’t be in it. Of course there are bad teachers; and to address another of the points my hypothetical critic made previously, school districts have four years (in Illinois, and multiple years in most states) to determine if a new hire has what it takes to be a good teacher.
Be that as it may, we’ll take a look at some characteristics we should expect from all teachers next time.