Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What makes a good teacher makes a good human

I enjoyed "What Makes a Great Teacher," an article in this month's The Atlantic magazine last night. It reported on findings by Teach for America that were collected, analyzed and implemented in order to be used to maximize the efficacy of its new teachers. If selected (a huge "if" because there are far fewer positions than applicants) new grads join the program and work in low-income school districts for two years. The data set on these teachers' performance as correlated with student performance outstrips any collected elsewhere. The findings have been used to improve their own teacher preparation and, incidentally or otherwise, also appear to have informed the new standards being used by the Obama administration to improve the nation's schools.

What they have found is great teachers get great results from their students independent of available resources. As long as these people have a room, light, something to write on and children to teach, the test subject competence of the students tends to go up, way up. (Incidentally, the article reported a backlash against these new standards by the national teacher's union. Lovers of education may need to contend with some educators when improvement is on the line).

The question then becomes, "What makes a great teacher?" There are several answers, one central being what researchers termed "grit." Those individuals who have the internal resources to overcome difficulties in their own lives tended to inspire the same in their students. These were the teachers who engaged in a constant and recursive cycle of self-improvement. When contacted by researchers to be observed, they often reported their classrooms were a mess because they had torn up their curriculum and were trying something new. They wanted to do better and were acutely aware when one or more students weren't understanding the lessons.

These teachers contacted the parents and made themselves available. They were always prepared for class and did not make excuses for themselves or their students. They believed in their own possibilities through self-improvement and believed the same of their students. One analysis found grade school students in low-income communities who were given the opportunity to be taught by these kinds of teachers would perform as well as students in wealthy suburbs by high school.

In contrast, one interviewed teacher cited the poor conditions of the communities, homes and schools as reason for poor student performance. This teacher also had very poorly performing students- worse after a year with her. Perhaps those who make excuses for their students may be making excuses for their own lack of efficacy.

I argue that the attributes of the excellent teachers are the attributes of all effective people. Hard work, "grit," and a belief that things can and will be better are the central concepts behind the best of American culture. The very best of who we are as a culture and country lies in the beliefs in limitless possibilities as per our ability and willingness to work towards these possibilities.

The problems that face our nation and our globe are problems of matter, of form. They are problems of written law, cast off waste, in short, human behavior. And human behavior can be changed over time and through perseverance.

What most people need is leadership, to be shown how to do this. Not ever person fights their way out of a difficult situation depending almost entirely on internal resources. These people are exceptional and uncommon. However, all people can learn and all people can change. We do not need every person to lead, we need a few and then country, community and family to be savvy enough to identify these people and follow their lead.

The last year in our national politics has been a sobering moment for those of us drunk from the possibilities made visible by last year's election. We had our blissful moment of inspiration. The moment we have now calls for the very thing the successful teachers from Teach for America demonstrated, GRIT. If we want to have an exceptional country created by what is exceptional in us all we have to downshift into low gear and trudge forward through the mire of corruption, callousness, and ambivalence. Time to get to work.

No comments: