A Tale Of Three Teachers

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The young teacher started right off making a rookie mistake in the opening minutes of his first class, on his very first day. “How many of you know what a liter is?” he asked his high school math class. “Give me a thumbs up if you know, thumbs down if you don’t.” None of the kids responded, so he entreated, “Come on, I just need to know where you are. Thumbs up if you know, thumbs down if you don’t.”

An experienced teacher would not have asked students to volunteer their ignorance. An experienced teacher might have held up an empty milk carton and asked someone to identify it. Once someone had said, “that’s a quart of milk,” the veteran might have pulled out a one-gallon container to be identified. Only then would she have shown them a liter container, explaining that most countries in the world use a different measuring system, et cetera.

But the rookie didn’t know any better. He’d graduated from Yale that spring, had a few weeks of training that summer, thanks to Teach for America, and then was given his own classroom.

Another first year teacher made a rookie mistake in the spring. “How many of you dislike poetry,” he asked his high school seniors? “How many of you really hate poetry?” When most of the hands went up, he announced, “That’s going to change, because I am going to turn you into poetry lovers.” With that simple — and stupid — declaration, the rookie had made it all about himself, not about the poems. He had challenged his class on personal terms, making it an ego trip for himself, not an educational journey for his students.

Matters never really improved for the first rookie that year, and he was not invited back for a second year. I was the second rookie. I taught for two years and then moved on, but it wasn’t until years later that I recognized how counterproductive my approach to that poetry unit was.

So what’s the point? Rookies make rookie mistakes? Or is it that teachers need serious training (I had none whatsoever, not even the equivalent of a TFA summer) before taking over classrooms?

This brings me to the third teacher in this short essay, a young woman I observed doing a bang up job of teaching first graders to read. She seemed to have all the moves down, phonemic awareness, chunking, words that must be memorized (like ‘the’) because they don’t follow the rules, and so forth. Her first graders were reading confidently and competently. We made a piece about it, for the NewsHour:

I knew that she had completed a five-year program at a reputable state university, giving her both a bachelor’s and a master’s in elementary education and a certificate to teach. In short, she had it all.

Or did she? “That’s where you learned how to teach reading,” I stated as a half-question. “No,” she responded emphatically! “They never said a word about phonics in any of my classes. I had to learn all of that here, on the job.”

I was dumbfounded and disbelieving, but a search of that education school’s course syllabus and a phone call to a now-retired professor there confirmed what she had said. Phonics was barely acknowledged. Apparently the reading wars continue, at least on that campus, with ‘whole language’ still planted firmly in the saddle.

Given a choice between bad training and little or none, what is one to do? And if that’s the choice right now, what can we do to change the odds? Let me suggest it’s time for a 180-degree turn. We need to make it more difficult to become a teacher, which we could do by raising standards for admission into training programs and then providing one-year apprenticeships before teachers are given their own classrooms.

Teacher
How are we going to raise the bar for entering the teaching profession?

The first change — tougher admission standards — applies to virtually every school and college of education: Raise the bar for getting into the profession. Improve programs by weeding out professors who are still waging old battles. Do much more of the training in real schools and real classrooms.
(Some schools and colleges of education are already going down this road, including Arizona State, Michigan, Berkeley, and Teachers College. All led by women, by the way. Add to that list Stanford, which was, until recently, also led by a woman.)

The second change — a one-year apprenticeship — applies to TFA, which already has remarkably high admission standards to its two-year program. But it’s the rare individual who can take over a class after a few weeks of summer training and be genuinely effective. Even successful TFA teachers often admit that much of their first year was a wash, at best. What if TFA were a three-year program, with the first year being an apprenticeship? Would that produce better teaching and also help TFA weed out the ambitious ones seeking largely to punch up their resumés?

As I say, I think the country needs to make a U-turn. Because most schools of education have low admission standards, it’s far too easy to become a teacher. And because many of our policies and practices are hyper-critical, and even punitive, toward teachers, it’s now very difficult to be a teacher.

It will take a concerted effort on the part of governors and university presidents to make it harder to become a teacher. Governors have to be convinced of the economic and political benefits of having their constituents’ children taught by skilled professionals. I fear that the leadership at many universities is comfortable with the ‘cash cow’ aspect of their education programs, which take in more than they spend. What sort of pressure would be required to get them to change?

But making those changes seems like a walk in the park compared to what it would take to do to reverse our current ‘blame the teacher’ approach. Making it easier for today’s teachers to teach won’t happen unless and until we come to our senses. Does anyone see that happening soon?


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What Do Teachers Do?

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Last night over dinner, a retired educator — still very involved — suggested that the job of a teacher today was fundamentally different from what it was ten or so years ago. “Teachers are more like coaches now,” he said. I chimed in with the view that, in the best of circumstances, teachers were explorers, and I riffed about the changed world, the internet, and the importance of adults helping kids formulate questions, not regurgitate answers. (If you’ve read The Influence of Teachers, you know the drill).

Listening quietly to us two old guys were two relatively young history teachers from an independent school. At one point one of us (finally) asked what they thought. The younger of the two smiled politely and said, in effect, “Your theories are fine, but we teach Advanced Placement History, and there’s not much time for ‘coaching’ or ‘exploring.’

Later, as I was walking to the subway, I wondered what the right word would be to describe what teachers do. If they’re not ‘the sage on the stage’ or ‘the guide on the side’ and if they’re not ‘coaches’ or ‘explorers,’ then what exactly are they today?

Teacher
If you could sum up this man's job in one word...

And, if it’s true that in the best of worlds, teachers would function as coaches and explorers (guiding learning while also learning themselves), what stands in the way?

I am familiar with the complaints from teachers that they have to be social workers, surrogate parents, counselors, health care providers, nutritionists and more, and I have no doubt that is often true.

Crowded classrooms and other factors mean that teachers are often in the role of policemen, which is not what they signed up for.

New approaches to accountability also mean that teachers have to be ringmasters, whipping their unruly ‘animals’ so they will jump through the hoops of standardized tests — or the hoops of a curriculum that is handed down from on high (and designed to be ‘teacher-proof’). Someone up there still believes that knowledge is something to be poured into children’s heads, like that awful graphic in the infamous movie “Waiting for ‘Superman.’” I am reminded of John W. Gardner’s observation, “All too often, we are giving young people cut flowers when we should be teaching them to grow their own plants.”

Today’s approaches to accountability may also be turning teachers into competitors, not teammates in a shared enterprise. If keeping my job depends on my students’ test scores, then why should I help my colleagues improve?

My own belief is that most teachers would happily be teaching children ‘to grow their own plants,’ but that’s not their decision. In my experience, many of their supervisors do not have much faith in their teachers. I think of the Director of Professional Development in the Washington, DC, schools who told me in 2007 that in her opinion 80% (not a misprint) of the teachers in DC had neither the skills nor the motivation to be successful.

The sentence that precedes Gardner’s pithy observation about flowers is descriptive. “Much education today is monumentally ineffective,” he wrote in 1963, and one can only wonder at what he would be saying now.

I am still searching for the one right word to describe teachers today. Reviewing the candidates: competitors, policemen, social workers, surrogate parents, counselors, health care providers, nutritionists and ringmasters.

I happen to be a fan of well-designed charter schools, of which there are a fair number. These schools are found in systems that have refused to hand out charters like Halloween candy but instead set a high bar for approval. We’re working on a documentary right now at Learning Matters about how charters helped transform New Orleans, in fact:

(We have a lot of lousy charter schools because of low standards — garbage in, garbage out. Too many charter authorizers have made it too easy to get a charter, with predictable consequences. Therefore, no one should judge a charter school without taking a hard look. It would be like evaluating a car based on its color, as Ted Kolderie has observed.)

The schools I am writing about here have strong leadership, a balanced curriculum that includes art and music, and (most often) a strong working relationship with families. Inside these schools you find students and teachers who want to be there.

In these schools, the principals protect their teachers, enable them to be coaches and explorers, and hold them accountable for results. Learning is a team sport in these special places, as it should be. The adults in these schools recognize that the (paradoxical) goal of this team sport is to produce strong individuals, because (again quoting John Gardner), “The ultimate goal of the educational system is to shift to the individual the burden of pursing his own education. This will not be a widely shared pursuit until we get over our odd conviction that education is what goes on in school buildings and nowhere else.”

And we have to get over our ‘odd conviction’ that teachers are the problem in education. It’s not merely ‘odd;’ it’s downright destructive of a vital profession.

Given all that many teachers are called upon to do, perhaps the one best word is ‘juggler.’

On the other hand, if they are at various times policemen, social workers, surrogate parents, counselors, health care providers, nutritionists and ringmasters, then the one best word for ‘teacher’ has been staring me right in the face the entire time: teacher.

Re-evaluating Teacher Evaluations

What prompted this post was my discovery that only 15 of the 714 Chinese drug factories get inspected every year. On average, foreign medical factories that bring products to the US are inspected once every 13 years. Our 300+ ports receive 18.2 million shipments of drugs, cosmetics, food and devices a year, and the Food and Drug Administration has only about 450 inspectors. Do the math!!

Teacher EvaluationThat got me thinking about teachers and how they are ‘inspected.’ For a few months now I have been corresponding with teachers I know. Here’s what they told me, with a few of my own thoughts stuck in here and there.

In the old days, teachers closed their doors and did their thing, for better or for worse. As long as things were quiet, administrators rather bothered to open the door to see what was going on, and teachers never watched each other at work. That’s changing, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. In some schools today, teachers are actually expected to watch their peers teach, after which they share their analysis. In other schools, however, principals armed with lists sit in the back of the class checking off ‘behaviors’ and later give the teacher a ‘scorecard’ with her ‘batting average.’

No Child Left Behind was supposed to close what is called ‘the achievement gap’ by forcing schools to pay attention to all children. Unfortunately, the gaps persist: Only 14% of Blacks and 17% of Latino 4th graders are proficient in reading, compared to their Asian American (45%) and White (42%) counterparts on the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress. NCLB’s critics claim that the law has narrowed the curriculum to a single-minded focus on reading and math, eliminated programs for the gifted, and turned schools into ‘drill and kill’ factories, and those claims are, in some places, supported by facts.

NCLB’s biggest change may be in teaching itself. For better and sometimes for worse, what teachers used to do behind closed doors is now scrutinized, often on a daily basis. That is, someone, often the principal, drops in regularly to watch the teacher at work. Whether these observations are diagnostic in nature and therefore designed to help teachers improve or a ‘gotcha’ game is the essential question. The answer seems to vary from school to school.

What were ‘the good old days’ like? Continue reading