Nicholas Kristof, in a recent article on “great” teachers in the New York Times, cites a study that, through research, gives an estimated “value” for a great teacher through his or her students’ acheivements. According to the study, having a “great” fourth grade teacher will accord a student an average of $25,000 more in lifetime earnings over an average teacher. That student is also 1.25% more likely to go to college, and 1.25% less likely to get pregnant as a teenager. All of this from a fourth grade teacher? Even though 1.25% doesn’t seem like much, when you realize that you are tracing that back to a single elementary school teacher, then it’s actually a very interesting number to me. Imagine what a whole host of good teachers could do for a child! But the real issue is how do we get – and keep – great teachers in the classroom so they can affect students positively? This is an incredibly important question, especially when just shy of 50% of new teachers quit before their fifth year of teaching… (What does that tell you about the profession?)
It makes me think of my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Davis. I tested her. I mean it; I was a horrible child in school for the first 10 years of my school career. I was constantly in trouble, and had learned that was a great way to get attention, because I had also had a rash of mediocre to poor teachers for the first three years before Mrs. Davis. They responded to me in ways that did not motivate me to behave better. My 3rd grade teacher was known for walking up behind you and grabbing you by your hair and shaking your head around if she didn’t like what you were doing. She was awful, and terrifying. I made sure I would make her life as a teacher a living hell, because she sure was making mine one, too! But Mrs. Davis was a saint, and she started the process that restored my faith in teachers. After my third grade experience (and loss of hair), my parents decided that they really needed to move me and my sisters into a better school district. And so I ended up with Mrs. Davis in an excellent school district the next year. And I can honestly say that she made a profound difference in my life.
Great teachers are hard to come by. And as Mr. Kristof mentions in his article, teachers and teacher’s unions do try and reflect a lot of the responsibility for student failings to the families. And I think that, in many cases, this is true. Many of the students that I see who fail time and time again do not have any support from home. That’s not to say that I don’t see students fail who come from a supportive family background. But when those students start to struggle, their parents come up along side them, and support their children – and the teachers. And this seems to make a huge difference in the long run.
However, Mr. Kristof’s point is very valid: Good teachers make a huge difference. I could list a whole series of teachers I had who really made me believe in myself. But I could also list a whole series of teachers that caused me a lot of damage, too.
So how do we ensure that we have the best teachers in the classroom? Many people might expect that my first answer will be money, but it’s not. What I have, instead, are four fundamental things that we can do to insure that we have – and keep – the best teachers in the classroom. I’m going to list them in below, and then go into depth with each one in separate posts later.
I also recently read a great post on The New York Times that deals very well with many of the issues I want to write about. This article, by Dave Eggers and Ninive C. Calegari, echos a lot of my thoughts and opinions. I especially like the introduction – it’s quite true, and I know many teachers who feel like grunts in trench warfare sometimes…
Anyway, the first issue is support: Teachers need support. They need to not be deathly afraid to be wrong. We’re only human, after all. This does not mean that I am looking for excuses to not do my job. But many teachers teach in an environment of fear because they are not properly supported by their districts, administrators, and the parents. Let’s face it – teachers spend all day in front of some of the most critical people imaginable – the students. They notice everything: every fly unzipped, every fleck of saliva, every tongue-twisted moment. We make plenty of mistakes, and most of them are noticed. How do parents and administrators react when it becomes apparent that we’re not perfect? Many teachers fear for their jobs because they feel that the adults who examine them will not accept anything less than perfection, and I think that fear makes for a less effective teacher.
The second way we we can ensure we have good teachers is proper evaluations. Evaluations that are not just a “gotcha!” for bad teachers, but rather a way for teachers to see what they can do better, and improve upon their craft. Linking teacher evaluations to standardized testing may sound good on the outset, but in reality, it is a horrible idea, for many reasons. The idea of evaluating teachers based upon the regurgitated results of standardized testing will never be an accurate litmus of how good a teacher is. There are simply too many variables, included class size, socio-economic issues, and changes in education settings, physical environment, etc. However, I will say that some of the best things that ever happened to me as a young teacher is that I had a couple of administrators who were honest in their evaluations of my teaching style, and offered me great ideas on how to make myself a better teacher. Teacher evaluations are important, and useful.
Third, we do need to address teacher’s salaries. Not just because I think that they make too little, but because I think it is tied in with the previous issues (support and evaluations); and is commonly misconstrued as a good way of motivating teachers. This is untrue, for many reasons. I wouldn’t ever want a teacher in the classroom because it was simply a good paycheck. Teachers need to believe in what they are doing. Besides, there have been several studies that have dealt with the fact that monetary gain is not a sufficient motivator anyway. However, when teachers are not making enough money to even live in the district that employs them, then I think there is an issue there. The truth of the matter is that teachers make 16% less with their salaries than other jobs that require the same level of education. In other words, if you are going to require that all teachers be highly educated and trained (a good idea), and make them go to graduate school, then you need to pay them accordingly. Now, good benefit packages can make up some of that difference, but all in all, there is a disparity here.
Lastly, I think one of the biggest ways to create and keep good teachers in by changing the way we train teachers in college. I can attest to the fact that most collegial education majors walk into the educational system woefully unprepared for their job. Many don’t know the content they are required to teach, and others are horribly unprepared for simple things like classroom management. The training of our teachers today is usually not worth the price paid for the degree. Some teachers can step up to the plate and learn the important stuff on the job, but many can’t. We really need to look at how we educate our educators.
As we go into more detail in the coming weeks on my opinions about teaching and teachers, I want to just say that it is important to also realize that teachers are not the key that unlocks all. They are not supermen, and will never be. Great teachers can do a lot for a child, but it takes more than just that. It takes a community to train up kids so that they can be successful in life. One person cannot make that happen.
Education is not some mystical black hole, where kids are sucked into some dark vortex and then spit back out at a later time with a magical transformation. It takes parents, administrators, neighbors, other kids, other families, coaches, and teachers, to make students successful. If one piece of that puzzle is missing at a critical moment, some of those other people can try and make up the deficit, but they can never truly replace each other. Each one is important, and each one is a powerful influence in a child’s life.