Thursday, January 8, 2009

What makes great teachers--and what attracts them to schools?

What seems like a long month ago a piece by Malcolm Gladwell appeared in the New Yorker under the title "Most Likely to Succeed." As is usual for Gladwell's work, the piece is briliantly written, creatively constructed, and provocative; he loves being the gadfly. In this case, the conventional wisdom he is questioning has to do with teacher hiring, curiously mirrored against the process pro football uses to vet prospective recruits. The subtitle of the article is "How do we hire when we can’t tell who’s right for the job?" And that is his point.

I'm not going to offer up a critique of Gladwell's approach, although lately I've found his thinking on education to be surprisingly reactionary, but the article seems to have sparked yet another round of the "What's wrong with teachers?" discussion, this time among what is perhaps a more elevated crowd than that stirred up by campaigning politicians. I was interested to note a few days later a blog post on the Wall Street Journal "The Juggle" site entitled "What Makes a Good Teacher?"--the post made reference to the Gladwell piece and was clearly inspired by it. Interested, I followed the commentary on this post, which revealed to me a great deal about how the kinds of Americans who read the Journal and the New Yorker think about teachers and schools.

Predictably, a fair number of the Journal commentarists let loose on teacher unions, tenure, and contemporary approaches to the teaching of spelling and grammar--the usual shibboleths of conservative educational critics. There was a biting and thus entertaining exchange over the proper use of the apostrophe, as in "it's" versus "its," and a couple of writers just thought the U.S. should adopt whatever methods are used to teach math and science in countries whose students outscore their American peers on the TIMMS assessment. A few people sneered at what they assume to be the poor intellectual quality of those who enter teacher training programs. One respondent even dragged out his (alleged?) SAT score as proof of his own intellectual worth.

But there was also a great deal of thoughtful commentary on the nature of schools and the qualities of excellent teachers and the kinds of conditions under which teachers can thrive, and it was heartening in the end to see how many of the writers (and a few of them are teachers, I'll have to admit) seem to understand the challenges of teaching.

Stepping way back, I will go so far as to generalize that a deep concern for children and their success was, by consensus, the signal characteristic of good teachers. Those who have this quality are seen as willing to make some sacrifices, even Herculean efforts, to make sure their students learn and grow.

Excellent teaching happens, the writers tended to agree, where teachers had the time to prepare adequately and administrative support to be innovative in their pedagogy. A few even acknowledged that Journal readers are likely to live in communities where affluence and high expectations around education are pretty much a guarantee of satisfactory educational outcomes; one writer even pointed out that socioeconomic filters blunt the effects of the problems with teacher hiring that Gladwell writes about.

None of the Journal commentarists nor Gladwell himself explicitly mentioned what I believe to be another factor in teacher success: clarity of purpose. (I even dashed off a letter to the editor of the New Yorker, but I'm not expecting it to appear.)

Schools with strong, clear and easily understood missions and the will to put these missions at the center of everything they do--generally independent schools, most religious private schools, and many charter schools--are likely to attract teachers who will be willing to "go the extra mile" with students to enact and teach values and ideals in which they believe. Within this group, independent schools have both the historical and financial advantages to capture the attention of prospective teachers with especially strong qualifications, to evaluate candidates carefully and fully (and expensively), and to offer contracts that, even if salaries are less than those of some charter schools, do not generally equate to vows of poverty.

Not every independent school teacher is a great teacher or even a good one, but schools that are exceptionally clear about who they need as teachers and who can communicate their educational and cultural values well in the hiring process are likely to attract and retain particularly strong faculties. Independent schools have another advantage here, in that longevity and established governance structures add a layer of mission and program stability that is not to be found in every charter school or newly founded faith-based school.

What Malcolm Gladwell may not have considered, and what the Journal writers seem to have missed, is that the kinds of teachers who will establish the success-oriented relationships with their students and who will spend hours perfecting their curriculum and pedagogy are most likely to be found in schools that educate their students and nurture their teachers in a context of shared meaning and purpose, supported from every quarter in the school and its community. (One suspects that the TIMMS poster-child countries are ones in which cultural homogeneity and a longstanding sense of teachers as figures of respect create this context on a national level, at least within the education system.)

It would be a wonderful world if our politicians would create more conditions for public schools in which meaning, purpose, and reward structures commensurate with the importance of the enterprise were the rule and not the exception, but in the meantime private schools, and in particular independent schools, should continue to work hard to enunciate and live positive, distinctive missions and values. This should ensure a continual flow of great, and potentially great, teachers toward their classrooms.

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