Sunday, February 24, 2013

What are teachers supposed to be like?

Seems to me that everyone has an answer to this question.  Throughout my career, I’ve gone to block parties, family gatherings, and other social events where people all have an opinion on the topic.  As soon as a stranger hears I’m in education, I hear their ideas.  “Good teachers are born, not taught,” someone will opine.  Or, “What we need in classrooms are people who are really dedicated,” another person will offer.  Everyone has gone through some kind of formal school experience, and everyone forms an opinion on the topic.  I suppose it must be like that for people who work at Boeing or Microsoft.  Lots of us use their products, and we all have ideas on how to make them better.  When I fly up and down the west coast, most often I fly on a Boeing 737.  It’s one of the most cramped planes I’ve experienced.  The seats are so close together that I can’t open my laptop, even when the seats sit upright.   “Why can’t they just take the bulkhead space in a 737, distribute it evenly, and create more space for all of us,” I muse.  There must be reasons why engineers create floor plans for planes in the way that they do, so I don’t imagine that my musings are going to influence the way that planes are built.

The difference in education is that there are some not-fully-informed opinions that actually matter.  Over the past 30 years, we’ve seen increased pressures at all levels of how education gets conducted because of the opinions of people who use either their experience or the perceived experiences of others to make policies, legislation, or investments into education without fully understanding the implications of their actions.  Well intentioned foundations have poured millions into shaping educational practice into a specific direction, while they ignore decades of research and experience that suggest other directions.  Federal and state legislators pass laws which follow flawed assumptions with even more flawed assumptions that drive schools far away from what they should be doing to be effective.  We have policy makers and enforcers at every level who understand little beyond the policies that they create and mandate.  And I’m convinced that it’s because people who believe that they know (as consumers of the experience) how best to shape education.  However, as is the case of my knowledge of jets, participating doesn’t equate to understanding how to build.

That problem extends throughout all facets of education, and it really extends into whom we think teachers should be.  I’ve written more formally on the dangers of over-standardization of teacher preparation.  But the problem goes deeper than that.  Through popular media, we have a sense that teachers need to be some combination of kindly Mr. Chips and magically wise Dumbledore.  Go online and search for best TV and movie teachers and you’ll find lists of them that offer an interest glimpse into our expectations.  As you’ll discover, though, the “best” teachers in our popular mythology are rated on character traits and not skill.  When skill gets explored, it’s a sense of magical quality that comes from the capacity to enthrall students.  In our popular mass awareness, this endowed skill is a “gift” that some have and others don’t.

It would be impossible to argue that teachers shouldn’t be wise or kind, or possess any of the characteristics that comprise the popular notion of teaching.  Teaching is hard work and it requires significant mental agility, constant creativity, a kindness of spirit, and wisdom to make decisions in every minute that can help or harm learners.  But it’s much more than that.  If you haven’t seen beyond your own experience or the popular sense of what teaching is, you won’t see what a teacher should be.  When I see the extra space in the bulkhead of a 737, I see what seems to be an obvious need to redistribute that space.  And when people who haven’t been trained in education see a classroom, they see external manifestations that can be incorrectly identified as magically gifted attributes.  However, as anyone who has been in education for a few years can explain, what you’re actually seeing are learned and practiced skills that can be defined.

This distinction is important when looking at what teachers are supposed to be like.  If I don’t know any better, I’ll most likely identify a good teacher as the person who is personable and charismatic and can present well.  In contrast, if I understand that teaching is a learned and practiced set of skills, I’ll look for other, more critical factors.  I’ll make certain that the teacher understands how to conduct activities like assessment of learning, classroom management, the sequencing of skills and knowledge, and the development of lessons that address a broad range of learners’ needs.  I’ll look for evidence that the person wants to work in a profession where she/he will have to learn and grow and adapt every year.  Our popular myths suggest that teaching requires extraordinary abilities.  I actually agree with that perception.  The difference is that my experiences as a teacher, my research, and my reading of others’ research all suggest to me that these extraordinary abilities are significantly formed through training and practice, just like any profession.

So what are teachers supposed to be like?  First, as you might infer from what you just read, they need to be skilled professionals.  They need to walk into a classroom on the first day prepared to perform one of the hardest jobs I know (I think of it as air traffic controlling while piloting the plane).  They need to begin their career with a set of skills that helps them know how to meet every student’s needs while ensuring that every student performs to high standards.  Secondly, like a physician who cannot practice from the knowledge gained solely in medical school, teachers need to remain current in both their methods and content knowledge.  Finally, teachers do need to be like kindly Mr. Chips and wise wizard Dumbledore.  They need to care deeply for each student’s success and provide that student with the guidance and support that the student needs. 

All of that suggest a preparation that is comprehensive in scope and depth.  The idea that just having the right characteristics makes a good teacher is an anachronism that has its roots in a system of education where we just expected educators to be dispensers of knowledge and students as vessels of knowledge waiting to be filled.  In truth, that dated idea was itself flawed since only a very few benefitted from that model.  For most of America’s educational history, we were satisfied with a system that served a few “smart” people while others were relegated to something less than that – something that meant schooling really wasn’t for them.  As we’ve started to live up to the promise of an egalitarian educational system, we need educators who can be more than just good communicators, or even kindly communicators.  Their preparation must help them to engage the most diverse population in the nation’s history and to ensure that every student succeeds.  A good teacher should look like the professionals I see in the schools I’m privileged to visit all the time:  possessing strong management and instructional skills, willing to learn more constantly, caring about each learner, and having an outstanding grasp of the content they teach.  If that sounds demanding, it is.  But that’s why we have preparation programs to help new teachers become ready for this.  And it’s why ongoing professional development is so important.  A good teacher has to be a master of many things and the ones I see have done that by being well trained and constantly learning more.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

What do we do with a greying profession?

Recently, the Council for the Advancement of Adult Literacy asked some people from around the country to contribute to a discussion on the greying of the leadership in adult education.  While CAAL's discussion is about the greying of the adult literacy leadership, it's a good discussion starter for all of education, as those of us in the baby boom who have held leadership roles are aging.  Both my comments and those of others are online at: