Randi Weingarten reminded us that education reform isn’t a contest to see who cares more about kids; I’d like to take this opportunity to assert that it’s also not a contest to see who loves or hates teachers more (and who’s right).
Like any issue, teacher quality has extreme voices at either end of the spectrum who tread a fine line between passionate and crazy. Some in the media would have you believe that there are only two camps: those who love teachers and find them all faultless, and those who blame all of America’s teachers for all of our educational woes.
My own opinion includes the following points:
- Teachers deserve more respect than they receive in our country.
- Teachers have one of the most important jobs anyone in our society can have.
- There is no one way to be a good teacher, but the one thing all good teachers have in common is that all of their students learn – a lot.
- There are many ways to be a bad teacher, and one thing that all bad teachers have in common is that not all of their students are learning and/or their students are not learning a lot.
- Teacher quality must be measured through more than test scores.
- You can make a difference in the lives of children and in the world of education outside of the classroom.
- Changing the skills, knowledge, and values of our future generations starts in the classroom.
One of my chief frustrations when it comes to this debate about teacher quality is how pissed off (self-described) good teachers get when they hear all this talk about bad teachers. In my view, getting people to talk about bad teachers (in an effort to get rid of them) is the first step towards making teaching a more respected profession, which has the potential to make a lot of things better. If you’re good at what you do, it shouldn’t make you feel angry or threatened when people like Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, and Michelle Rhee talk about getting rid of the weakest links.
Bad teachers make everyone’s job harder. As a Spanish teacher, I had students come from Spanish 1 into my Spanish 2 class barely able to say “hola”. Trying to teach Spanish 2 to someone who’s forgotten (or more likely, never learned) the objectives from Spanish 1 is like trying to teach algebra to someone who can’t perform basic arithmetic. It just doesn’t work, and it didn’t help me do my job, which was to get kids to speak in Spanish at the proficiencies proscribed for level 2. It was in my best interests as a teacher to have strong Spanish teachers at my school so that students coming to me from lower levels were prepared to learn my material and so that I could continuously improve my own teaching through the presence and assistance of high-performing peers.
People talking about teacher quality often bring up the examples of highly respected (and usually high-paying) professions. In an op-ed published in yesterday’s Washington Post, Bill Gates noted that:
“The value of measuring effectiveness is clear when you compare teachers to members of other professions – farmers, engineers, computer programmers, even athletes. These professions are more advanced than their predecessors – because they have clear indicators of excellence, their success depends on performance and they eagerly learn from the best. The same advances haven’t been made in teaching because we haven’t built a system to measure and promote excellence.”
Note the last words: “measure and promote excellence”. Much of the advocacy for teacher evaluation gets misconstrued as measuring failure or promoting firings; that’s not the whole picture. Yes – one of the goals of such systems is clearly to get bad teachers out of the classroom. (That doesn’t mean we’re forcing them out of education entirely. You might be a bad teacher but a great coach or counselor.) But ultimately, all of this is about giving our students the best education possible. No teachers are perfect, and even the best still have something to learn. Reaching a time when 90% of our teachers are great teachers will help us reach a time when not only are all of our students finally performing at proficiency levels but they are also surpassing our standards of proficiency to rival their peers around the world who, at this point, are set to unseat the United States from its superpower status just by virtue of their superior educations.
So, to all the good teachers out there: keep up the great work. If you can, take on the responsibility of mentoring other teachers so that they can emulate your successes. Share what you’re doing well so that the public knows what great teaching looks like. And get a thicker skin. This isn’t personal. And if you’re a good teacher, you’re probably more selfless than the average person. Remember that ultimately the push for greater teacher quality is about making things better for the kids you teach and that the intended side effect is that your job will be easier. Let’s hope that one day all our kids will be on or above grade level and that others when they meet you will say “oh, you’re a teacher!” with the same tone of respect that we now hear for doctors, lawyers, and engineers.