What Makes a Good Teacher, Part III

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Previously, we looked at studies which showed how difficult it was to determine exactly what to look for in teaching candidates and methodology for helping teachers to improve.  Despite the billions of tax dollars invested in hiring decisions and improvement programs that would enhance our public schools, nothing has been proven to work to any significant degree of statistical correlation.  There are many reasons for this failure in one of our most important professions, but the chief problem is most approaches are based on one key teaching strategy that may or may not be of particular importance to any one teacher.  The multitude of skills needed for effective teaching and how a teacher’s personality interacts with those skills belie any narrow approach; we simply have to accept that teaching is an art and that every artist brings unique talents to her/his classroom.

Instead, I posited that we should be seeking people with certain core characteristics which lead to good teaching, regardless of the various other skills any one teacher might inherently possess.  To begin our list, I suggested that all good teachers have an exceptional willingness to work and a commitment to teaching their subject matter in order to foster student growth.  These traits don’t always mesh with administrative goals of smooth, uniform, conflict-free staffs; but they lead to quality education for our kids.  Show me a group of hard-working, standard-bearing teachers, and I’m certain you will have the foundation of a strong school.

But there are a couple more traits that teachers need to cross the threshold from promising to good.  It’s not enough just to show up, put your nose to the grindstone, and insist that students meet high standards.  I’ve known many teachers who had long careers with just those traits, and in a pinch, you can get by with those alone.  But for the exceptional teacher, you should also be looking for people with creative flair who genuinely like their students.

We’ve all had teachers who were nice enough, but had absolutely zero sense of adventure, who were wheeling out lesson plans and dittoes decades old with references to match. (If you’re old enough to remember dittoes, I’ll automatically apologize for the small font size of this essay and try to speak louder.)  I’ve explained how difficult teaching is several times before, so I’m hoping you might be able to generate a gram of empathy for somebody who sticks to something that worked one time, given the challenges of trying to update it.  That fear of failure, however, is exactly the characteristic good teachers don’t have.  Yes, you will bomb many times when you try things, but every new teaching implement you find which works enhances your teaching arsenal and makes you that much more effective down the road.  No matter how many class periods my students endured where my “brilliant” idea lay there like a dead bird, that desire to go for something which had the potential to be helpful motivated me to keep slogging away.  I often took my students to task for being afraid to take intellectual risks, that no subjective idea could be rejected if you provided clear, logical evidence in support—so it would have been the height of hypocrisy for me to have played it “safe” year after year. Good teachers never accept the status quo; they will constantly seek new things to try to get better.

I believe that creativity comes from an individual’s never-ending quest to be perfect.  No, you won’t get there, but existential joy comes from seeking the ideal.  The teachers I would want at my school would not be content to sit on yesterday’s success, knowing that next year’s class probably won’t come close to replicating that experience.  Sure, it’s worth a try, and I’m certainly not saying teachers have to create new and stunningly engaging material every single day of their teaching careers.  But you do have to push to see that the desire to keep experimenting is part of a teaching staff’s standard operating procedure.  Which brings us to the final characteristic every teacher should possess, and it ties in to the afore mentioned creativity and currency; like anybody who cares about his audience, quality teachers want their kids to be successful and engaged in their classrooms because they like their kids.

It does seem odd that we have to single out this as a trait to look for, but I’ve know many, many teachers who were hard-working and had high standards but lapsed into boring, tired teaching primarily because they didn’t really care about their students all that much.  No, I’m not pretending good teachers like every single kid who passes through their doors over the course of thirty-five years.  Having that many students ensures that there will be a few with whom you just can’t connect.  But, quality teachers will find ways around the issues of the vast majority of their students and create a bond.  That does require patience from teachers since young people can discover anyone’s pressure points in a flash, and some seem to delight in pushing them as often as possible.

Ultimately, though, good teachers get along with their kids because they tend to see them as “their kids.”  Once you’ve spent fifty minutes a day (or longer for elementary teachers) for some 180 days with somebody, you should have a good idea what that person is like; quality teachers will be familiar with every student assigned to them.  Some will know all about their families, others can list all their likes and dislikes, and there will be those who simply enjoy them as people.  Yes, you have to be able to relate to the issues of people much younger than you for that to happen, so I will plead guilty to a huge streak of immaturity that helped me to connect with my kids.  Again, that might not number among the pristine qualities many administrators seek.  But show me a freshman teacher who appreciates a good fart joke (and yes, you can number me among those who see “good” coupled with “fart joke” as superfluous), and I will show you someone who could be an awesome ninth-grade teacher. Find me teachers that have empathy for their students and can even enjoy them, and you’ll have some quality instruction going on, I guarantee.

So it becomes clear why all those programs and experts don’t do very well when it comes to figuring out who the best teachers will be or in helping teachers to improve their skills to become even better:  None of the traits that every good teacher should have can be molded by one-day institutes or taught through on-line courses.  Hard work, a commitment to students and standards, creativity, and liking the people you teach aren’t really things you can measure or improve through some PowerPoint presentation.  Yet we keep trying, spending large sums for our futile efforts.

Better would be to conduct extensive interviews with prospective teachers’ cooperating teachers and/or college professors who had worked closely with them.  No prospective teachers are going to admit that the best word that describes them is “lazy,” that holding students to high standards is a bad thing, that they have little interest in varying the slightest from whatever curriculum is handed to them, or that they really don’t like people the age their students will be.  And we have to understand the limitations of the opinions of others who worked with them.  Instead, we have to gauge those qualities as best we can through our interviews of the candidates and their mentors, but most critically, we need to have empathic, supportive people in their classrooms as often as possible the first few years of their teaching careers who can observe all those things in action.

Administrators, of course, are paid to do this, but you should also be using your good teachers for some observations as well.  I’ve mentioned before how I had superior ratings throughout my teaching career but never had my opinions solicited on how younger teachers were doing.  No, I was not “schooled” in administrative duties, but I did see how my colleagues conducted themselves both in and out of the classroom.  I could have offered some valuable insight, especially on those teachers I felt didn’t possess enough of those four characteristics before they were granted tenure.  I concede that it’s very difficult to determine if a bright, shiny college graduate will be able to teach a bunch of squirrely eighth graders expertly from day one, but there’s no reason not to recognize within a four non-tenure-years period (when dismissal is easiest) that someone just doesn’t have the right mix for long-term teaching success.  We need to use our best teachers more often and more intensely in evaluating who does or does not have good teaching potential.

The same holds true for helping veteran teachers to improve.  Bringing in outside experts with lots of degrees, foundations, books, and methodologies was how the vast majority of time I was allowed to work on myself was spent.  Ironically, the best experiences I had throughout my career, though, came from other teachers who were working in situations similar to mine.  Yes, occasionally an expert or method rang true and even got me excited to try something different, but well over 90% of these presentations served no purpose other than to give the illusion that my school districts had done due diligence in providing teacher training.  But on those few days when teachers were allowed to interact, I never came away without at least one idea that made a positive difference in my teaching—immediately.  One of the worst aspects of the “reform movement” of the last three decades (essentially,1983 began the whole mythology that our schools were horrible when the most influential report came out—A Nation at Risk —and many came to the conclusion that all of the blame for weak schools could be assigned to teachers) is nobody believes teachers’ views on education matter.  Think about that for a second:  Has that kind of distrust ever so universally been applied to doctors, lawyers, plumbers, engineers, scientists, or virtually any other profession?  Not likely, but we’ve come to accept the lie that teachers are unqualified to make decisions about what and how they should teach.  The truth, however, is every teacher is a fount of knowledge, ideas, and skills which could be utilized for the common good, well beyond that teacher’s specific students.

Of course, given those unique personalities and abilities we all possess, my fount might not be productive for what you’re growing in your garden, but nobody should expect that every teacher can be magically transformed by every other one.  The problem is that few believe any benefit whatsoever could come from teacher collaboration; yet one of the most vaunted educational systems in the world—Finland’s—has teacher collaboration time as a focal point for developing its educators over the long haul.  And not only would teachers talking to teachers be more cost-effective than expensive programs and self-promoters, but teachers would be much more willing to listen and give credence to the ideas coming from someone else who had been in a classroom too. There are so many positives to the whole concept of learning from others who do what you do that it seems downright negligent for more schools districts not to incorporate more collaboration.  All those “late arrival” or “early dismissal” days many districts have these days are steps in the right direction; better would be to utilize some form of one-on-one work every day.  Co-taught classes, observations of other teachers (in a variety of subject areas), and guided discussions (yes, still one-on-one but partners changed for each discussion with new topics every time based on input from…well, who else? Teachers!) are just a few ideas that might enable teachers to learn from one another.  And couched that way—“learning from each other”—we could do away with much of the fear of being judged or *gasp* evaluated by the other person.  It would just be colleagues working together to share their varied abilities and experiences.  With all those positive possibilities and so little risk in the way of expense, it’s certainly worth a try.

Figuring out who will be a good teacher and assisting the ones already working to improve has been a sinkhole for much public revenue for many years, yet we still have little understanding of how to “manufacture” the kinds of amazing educators we all claim to desire.  “Accountability” in teaching has become code for “everyone else knows better than you how to do what you’re not doing well,” which has led to our current frustration in seemingly all quarters; students, teachers, parents, administrators, school board members, politicians, community members, and billionaires all complain about the state of education in America with little to show for all their issues.  The good news is that we can provide a better environment for our teachers to grow, provided we recognize those traits that go into the artistry of education.  You can’t quantify or objectify a good teacher’s classroom, but it’s pretty obvious when you experience it.  We just need to get better at allowing our teachers to work together to assist each other toward that goal.

For more on helping teachers to achieve great educational outcomes, check out my E-book, Snowflake Schools.

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