Last time, we reviewed a study which had looked at eleven different states’ efforts to screen for the best teaching candidates as well as the ways they attempted to provide for growth in teachers already employed. The results showed that despite taxpayer billions spent each year, there were no pre-employment hiring techniques or in-service, evaluation, or training that could be significantly correlated to that elusive “good” teacher label. Actually, the only way found to figure out which teachers will excel in any given year was to see who had success the year before. As anyone in education can tell you (I retired after thirty-three years in 2012, having spent the majority of my career teaching English at Hinsdale South High School), especially right now as districts gear up for the school year’s start, teachers are subjected to a lot of in-service and workshops each term, apparently with little positive return. And my experience would suggest that most teachers would heartily agree that most in-service experiences are not worth whatever is paid for them.
Before we go any further, we have to address the 800-pound piece of chalk in the room: How is teaching excellence defined? Unfortunately, many consider standardized testing as the best way to assess a teacher’s quality; I do not. However, for the sake of this piece, plus the fact that other measures are rarely studied thoroughly and my belief (based on anecdotal experience, I will be the first to admit) that teachers who teach their subject matter well will have students who do fine on those stupid tests; I won’t reject standardized testing as a way to determine teacher quality, at least for this essay. I despise standardized tests, however, and feel they have done much damage to public education, especially in the last ten years. But to continue this discussion and only for this brief interlude, I won’t attack their being used as a measure of teaching effectiveness for the next thousand words or so. I do have to insist, though, that there are many, many, many other better ways to assess quality teaching. My hope is that the characteristics analyzed in this series of essays could be the basis for tailoring methods that would look at how teachers do their jobs. Yes, we ex-teachers are not shy about claiming to know better than those who have never taught or sought to “escape” classrooms by moving up the administrative ladder or left them entirely.
The challenge, then, is to determine the essential qualities every good teacher should possess so we can get those gems in front of our children. Again, for the sake of this essay, I will not challenge the grossly exaggerated estimates of how many bad teachers are working in our schools. Even though I would argue (and have) that things like tenure and unions are beneficial for public education overall, I will cop to the charge that there are some teachers out there who shouldn’t be working with kids. So, how do we figure out who those people are? The easiest way is to look at the things that make some people really good at teaching.
At the top of my list is a solid work ethic in accepting the never-ending responsibilities teaching requires coupled with educational conviction and a personal passion for educating kids. As to the first, teaching is one of those professions where you never feel like you’ve finished all that needs to be done. One of the most awesome parts of retirement for me is that I no longer have a little cloud of responsibility hanging over me all the time. There was always something I could have or should have or HAD to be doing. As an English teacher, I dreaded the towering stack of student essays or (*shudder*) research papers that I would have to spend hours and hours of my “free” time reading, marking, and commenting on in order to get the 30-125 grades back to my students in two weeks. Two questions immediately occurred to many people when they would hear me complain about having to get all those papers graded in that time frame: “If you hate it so much, why do assign them in the first place? And why do you have to get them back in two weeks?” Fair questions both—nobody really ever forced me to assign the number of written assignments I did nor was there any departmental edicts on how long to take in grading them. But I was convinced writing was the best way for my kids to demonstrate the gamut of skills English requires, and I believed that waiting for more than two weeks would be too long for the results to have any hope of reinforcing those lessons.
And that leads to the second necessary teacher quality listed above and one of the best ways to find good ones: The best teachers have personal standards that have been internalized and will be pursued, regardless of organizational expectations or pressure. Of course, you can get a certain level of performance through pushing; we’ve all seen the movies where the baseball-wielding principal (played by Morgan Freeman, of course) single-handedly turns a hellscape into an educational utopia with sheer force of personality. But that’s mostly Hollywood exaggeration which had no parallel in my reality. (Well, there was the one time I killed a bee that wouldn’t leave my classroom with an extremely allergic freshman cowering at his desk…um, it was a pretty big bee.) Regardless, we have found over and over that forcing others to do things a specific way doesn’t lead to good results; the best employees are those encouraged to pursue standards in ways that enable them to express their views, to use methodology which plays to their strengths, and to have outlets for their creativity. Good teachers are just as driven as that whacky principal and just as insistent on the best paths to good results as salmon on their way home to mate before dying. I kid you not; I witnessed countless obsessive behaviors in my decades in the classroom, in myself own as well as many of my colleagues. That level of commitment and certainty—properly directed, of course—are exactly what make for classrooms that make differences in our children’s lives.
Every teacher can’t obsess over each and every detail in his subject area, but if I were an administrator seeking the best instructors for my students, I would watch for intense determination in my teachers. Do they push themselves to grade papers even when nobody else seems to care? Do they chase students down to hector them into getting extra help? Do they get red-faced and glassy eyed when lecturing on their passions? My key areas of focus were grammar and writing which led me into many “discussions” with other teachers who weren’t quite as keen on the logical precision of correct usage or the joys of grading written expression. After haranguing my honors students about the wrongness of a concept the social studies department had begun—the “Thesis Paragraph” (instead of having the kids write an entire essay, they would have them write these “paragraphs” consisting basically of all the topic sentences that would start the paragraphs of hypothetical essays)—the social studies department chair (who later went on to become assistant superintendent and principal at two highly respected high school districts in the Chicago suburbs) and two other social studies teachers asked me to a meeting to try to get me to ease off challenging their new brain-child. Needless to say, the three of them were completely out-gunned by one zealot who would never accept that taking short-cuts to essay writing could be a positive thing. The Thesis Paragraph died that day, and they began assigning Sentence Outlines, which is what they’d been doing all along. No, they weren’t all that happy about my fixation on not trying to claim an organizational technique was actual “writing.”
But good teachers don’t give a damn about other views when it comes to the things in which they believe. You can probably tell that teachers I consider “good” won’t necessarily make for the easiest people to work with. Cooperation with administrative directives and watering down deeply held beliefs—while traits most principals and superintendents find attractive—will not spur on the classroom dynamos I want in my school. So, yeah, the first trait we should be cultivating in our teachers is the passionate conviction that what they are doing is important and shouldn’t be messed with for expediency’s sake. It is going to be hard to ferret this out in new teachers who fear that not smiling enough at the superintendent’s lame jokes might cost them their jobs, but let’s be clear: The climate of the school is extremely important for teacher success. Instead of being distracted by all the silly “initiatives” administrators bring in to show how they’re leading the charge, we should focus on how teachers are overseen and how much freedom and creativity they are encouraged to pursue. Spine is a huge positive in a teacher, yet most school districts hate it when teachers stand up for what they believe to be in their students’ best interests.
If we want good teachers, we have to understand what they’re trying to do before we leap in with supposed “fixes” that do not mesh well with that teacher’s goals or personality. While that latitude cannot be total or last forever, supervisors should first and foremost check that the teachers have standards they are pursuing and that they are working hard to get there. Obviously, if the standard being pursued is as little work as possible, then that teacher has to go. Too often, administrators view complaints from parents about tough grading scales and stressed children as signs of bad teaching, rather than a potentially great teacher who merely needs a little seasoning and better communication skills. Conversely, teachers popular with students who seem to lack control of their kids’ learning and whose standards are too lenient can often evolve into gentle bastions of safety for kids who really despise school, turning student affection for that teacher into serious educational accomplishment, simply to please the one person they feel understands them. Good teachers develop over several years in millions of different ways, and good schools will nurture individual talent rather than general compliance.
The evaluation of work ethic and commitment, therefore, will take time and frequent observation. The current systems in place in most schools don’t make use of either. I’ll have to save my suggestions for how bosses in schools need to work with their teachers in order to stimulate idiosyncratic excellence for another time—there is no one way or one type that will succeed, as we saw in those studies with which we began this series. But, everyone should work hard and care, to cull what I’m talking about to its essence.
So if you have teachers who accept their never-ending responsibilities and are personally committed to high standards, you have teachers who can be stars. The final characteristics that all teachers should have are creativity and compassion. And we’ll soon take a look at how those manifest themselves.
For more on how good teachers can be supported as well as the mechanics of excellent public schools, check out my eBook, Snowflake Schools.