Summary: Great teachers make great schools. No other factor is close to being as important as the effectiveness of teachers. We have great teachers and ineffective teachers. We must make sure our system attracts and learns from our great teachers, respects and encourages their leadership, and helps other teachers adopt their techniques. We must respond to ineffective teachers according to the cause of their ineffectiveness, but we must respond; their effect on children is too great to ignore.
Great teachers have a huge effect on their students. They inspire their students to maximum effort and maximum accomplishment. They give students a chance to earn what cannot be given: esteem, both from self and others. By asking a lot of their students, they offer the high compliment of belief in each student's abilities. How are we treating our great teachers?
Deborah Meiers writes of the profound disrespect and humiliation she felt in the way she was treated as a teacher in the New York City School System and the subsequent piddling harassment of trivia-obsessed, control-minded central office personnel. Marva Collins abandoned the Chicago schools only after her fellow teachers made her an object of attack and her principal let political comfort override not only basic respect for her, but the best interests of her students. Jaime Escalante was never selected as teacher of the year in California, and his accomplishments have been minimized and criticized by professors of education, administrators, and even those at his old school, Garfield High in Los Angeles, who are now accomplishing so much less with the same type of students he took to the heights.
How are we doing in Nashville? I cannot answer that question yet. Perhaps some who read this will e-mail stories and suggestions for improvement. But, I am convinced that it is great teachers and principals, and great teachers and principals alone, who can and will challenge, encourage and enable our students to achieve more year by year until we become a great school system. We have to find a way to let them.
As I was editing this page while on an airplane flight, a young flight attendant sitting beside me said, "More money." "I'm sorry?" I said. "More money," she repeated. "I know so many teachers who quit to become flight attendants to make more money."
A few years ago, I had a knowledgeable, capable, hard-working assistant who told me of her plans to leave to get a teaching job. I quickly decided to see to it we paid her enough so she would have to take a substantial cut to become a teacher. It wasn't hard to do.
Those of us who went to school in the 60's, 50's, and before had the benefit of many intelligent, educated and capable women (and, in what were then called "Negro" schools, men) teachers who had few other outlets for their abilities. Of course, some of them would have taught any way, just as some do today. However, our current society offers many more opportunities for those individuals. Thus, if we want to attract folks to teaching who might otherwise have become journalists, engineers, or lawyers, we are going to have to make the job enticing, including a competitive pay scale. In return, we have the right to insist that teachers have and maintain the valuable knowledge and skill levels that we need, and that they be effective as teachers.
I have broken my thinking on this subject into four parts:
The job of a teacher is to teach, that is, to help students learn. An ineffective teacher makes it difficult for students to learn or decreases their desire to learn.
An ineffective teacher can make it difficult for students to learn in several ways: by not knowing the subject well, by not being able to communicate with students because of disorganization or other factors, by failing to focus on the task of learning the subject during every available minute of instructional time, by failing to use effective instructional approaches, or by ignoring the differing base levels of achievement which students bring to the classroom.
An ineffective teacher can decrease his students' desire to learn by a lack of enthusiasm for the subject, by hostile or inappropriate behavior toward the students, by failure to maintain discipline in the class, or by unfairly preferring some students to others.
They fall behind and never catch up. Parents talk of children hating school, becoming physically sick or depressed. My own son had such a bad year with one teacher that we had to cut short our family vacation by a day so he could get back and make sure she hadn't "moved up" with him!
From the value-added data, we know that three straight years of the most ineffective teachers produce children that average the 45th percentile nationally. By comparison, three straight years of the most effective teachers produce children that average the 95th percentile! Further, the research shows that students do not "make it up" the next year. The damage of an ineffective teacher lingers, even if the student has more effective teachers in the following years.
The first tool is value-added scores. Teachers in the bottom 20% of all Tennessee teachers are "ineffective teachers." They need help to improve, or they need to get another career. We simply cannot afford to let them work their damage on children year after year.
Principals are the second way we can identify ineffective teachers. Of course, ineffective principals aren't going to be very good at this, but the vast majority of principals have a pretty good handle on the quality of their teachers. Certainly, in addition to the value-added data, they know when parents are complaining, when discipline referrals are inappropriate, and often when factors in a teacher's private life may be affecting performance in the classroom. We need to support and encourage principals as they seek to work with or remove ineffective teachers. And we need an evaluation system for teachers that gives us a handle on the degree to which principals are accurately evaluating their teachers and a way to hold principals responsible for either helping their ineffective teachers improve, or dismissing them.
Finally, as a third source of information, we need to regularly ask parents, through standardized survey forms, about their child's teachers, and then tabulate and analyze the results.
First, we must make sure we know how to help teachers who are "ineffective", or not as effective as they could be, because of poor technique. We should study the best teachers and see if others can improve results by adopting their practices. We need well-thought-out, carefully conducted research into this area. We should also study outstanding teachers and teaching approaches nationally. Teachers such as Jaime Escalante and Marva Collins should be our models. We should also investigate instructional models that seem to help improve teacher effectiveness, such as the direct instruction model of the University of Oregon.
Second, we need to help teachers learn their subjects better. At all levels, from elementary to high school, we need to focus our incentives for continued learning on subject mastery. Teachers who do not know a lot are unlikely to inspire their students to learn a lot. Teachers who have been teaching for years, if they are "life-long learners", should know a lot about many subjects. They should be widely read in literature, history, science, psychology, economics, and many more subjects. And, their writing and communication skills should be excellent. We need to make sure our in-service and continuing education approaches support such results.
Finally, we have to make sure we have sufficient resources to identify, confront, and help, if possible, teachers with chemical dependencies or emotional problems. Again this is an area for principals. Teachers who hate kids, who are emotionally abusive, simply cannot be tolerated.
Teachers who can't or won't bring their effectiveness up to acceptable levels must be dismissed.
Copyright 1998, 199, 2000, 2001 by David N. Shearon