Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Great Teaching

Lately on the radio there's been a promo for the station's coverage of education issues where we hear what we presume to be an expert in the field talking about the latest legislation regarding teachers and the evaluation of the job they're doing.  The comments are something like this "What we're trying to do, for the first time ever, is find out what good teachers do and share that with others".  It sounds like a noble goal and is obviously aimed at making the idea of requiring principals to evaluate every teacher every year with a heavy emphasis on standardized test scores seem worthwhile.  One problem is that the statement is completely false.
We know and have known for centuries what good teachers do.  The fact that the scores on student's standardized tests may have very little to do with the quality of the teaching is bound to confuse some people who have been conditioned to think only in terms of numbers.  Just as the nightly business report of the various stock indices has little connection to the overall economy, test scores value is limited.
So what do good teachers do?  A good teacher cares about their students.  They know their students as individuals and help them learn to work as a group.  A good teacher has a wide range of experiences that they draw on seamlessly in the classroom.  They can think of twenty different ways to introduce the concept of multiplication depending on the learning styles of the various students in their class.  A good teacher leads a literate lifestyle, they are life-long learners.  They don't only teach students about reading and writing, they are practicing writers themselves and reading is a central part of their life.  A good teacher is the master of connections, a central skill in reading, they can demonstrate daily how to connect ideas from a lesson in science to a story being read aloud.  A good teacher shows the connections between the news of the day and history and helps a student express themselves in writing with ever increasing style and sophistication.  But mostly a good teacher cares.
Teaching is an art and like good art, you know it when you see it.  There is no numeric rubric to tell you that Picasso's Guernica is brilliant and writing a paragraph about Van Gogh's Starry Night does nothing to  increase it's power and beauty.
A good teacher may have students who score well on standardized tests.  Assuming a student is coming from a literate home environment and has developed excellent study skills and has been applying themselves through their first years in school (since standardized tests don't usually start until third or fourth grade) then a good teacher can help shape those skills and develop their abilities, and maybe even improve test scores.  The point is that the scores themselves don't measure any of the qualities that are essential to good teacher.
Apart from disrupting the schedule and taking time out of the learning day, standardized tests don't do any particular harm.  They can even provide a limited snapshot of some skills that might be useful in designing instruction.  The point I want to make is that we don't need new legislation to know how to recognize good teachers.  Just because we can't apply a set of numbers to rank teachers like batting averages doesn't mean that you can't recognize quality work.  Perhaps the most challenging element is the fact that the issues impacting young people's abilities to succeed in school and in society are complex and won't be solved by some arbitrary scoring system that can be used to eliminate teachers.  Perhaps the most challenging aspect is the fact that you might not be able to find a scapegoat for the world's problems and that you might not be able to explain all the nuances of good teaching with a set of numbers.  But don't worry, can you give me a set of numbers to explain why Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is stunning?