To Be A Teacher

There’s a fascinating article in The New Yorker which discusses the notion – the contemporary American religion, perhaps – of performance improvement.  The subject is introduced via a discussion of athletics, where performance (as RBIs or race times or free throw percentages, or whatever the contest may be about) is fairly easily to quantify and compare.


For that alone, the article is interesting enough.  Towards the end, though, there is a turn towards educations and, particularly, teaching: can these techniques be applied to teachers?  Why does teacher education overlook these things?  It’s an odd and underdeveloped discussion which leaves out key pieces of information and betrays a misunderstanding of both teaching-as-profession and “education reform” that may be endemic.


Contrary to the article’s assertion, most teachers do engage in continuing education throughout their careers; a teaching credential is not granted for life nearly anywhere, and renewal is contingent upon ongoing professional development (which can often take up the majority of a teacher’s summer “vacation”).  Improving teaching in America would be a much easier issue to tackle if it were simply a matter of insufficient education, but as those who study the matter seriously will be the first to admit, the problem is not that American teachers lack units of coursework: it’s that teaching somebody how to be a good teacher turns out to be really freakin’ hard.


It is, of course, possible to improve both teachers’ performance and teacher education, but it is a matter of quality and content, which makes for a much more complicated tale than the presence-or-absence story of NBA player Kermit Washington which opens the article.  Most American teachers do run off-season drills, and every teacher I’ve ever known has collaborated – informally, certainly, but they’ve all shared ideas, materials, tips, and tricks.


More egregiously, the article does not even mention that the favored technique of education reformers – fire “bad” teachers and replace them with new talent – directly contradicts the notion of skill-building over time.  First-year teachers are, generally speaking, not great; however talented they may be, they simply do not have the practice and developed skills to truly excel.  It takes years to get comfortable in front of a classroom, to integrate instruction and discipline, to balance content delivery and classroom management – anyone who thinks teaching is easy has almost certainly never tried (I have held many jobs of many types, and would without doubt call classroom teaching the most difficult by a mile).  Not surprisingly, therefore, one of the most relevant markers for a teacher’s classroom success is their experience; it turns out the reformist boogeyman of the tenured but burned-out lifer, cruising on autopilot and damaging students while collecting paychecks, is just that: a boogeyman.  There are some who do exist, but they are a tiny minority, more likely to be restored by a sabbatical or a year off than a first-year teacher is to have any greater impact on his or her students.


The mythology behind programs like Teach for America is that fresh new talent – where “talent” is synonymous with “pedigreed via the Ivy League or other elite schools” – is, itself, a cure for what ails American education.  Engaging young Harvard grads in urban education is not, in itself, a bad goal, and as an organization founded within a Princeton senior thesis project the self-serving benefit is obvious.  But there is nothing about a prestigious degree that magically confers the ability to teach.  There is nothing about youth and enthusiasm that magically confers the ability to teach.  There is nothing about replacing older, browner, more experienced teachers with younger, more privileged, barely-trained teachers that improves the quality of classroom learning whatsoever; in fact, if one considers it rationally, there’s very little about the idea that makes sense at all, unless one believes that an elite college brand is an adequate substitute for actual and significant professional education and experience.


Teaching is much more complicated than playing basketball, but here’s an analogy that might have been appropriate to the article.  American education is not universally terrible or universally mediocre so much as it is extraordinarily mixed: the best American students, teachers, and schools are among the very best in the world, and our worst – which is essentially a proxy for “poorest” – are, frankly, shameful.  It’s as if the NBA included both the 90s-era Chicago Bulls, as well as competitors made up of seasoned pros who practiced in a Wal-Mart parking lot.  And didn’t have basketballs.  They’ve been taught to play basketball and their skills aren’t bad, but they’re used to dodging cars and dribbling and shooting anything vaguely round and rebounding.  When those teams play against the Bulls, in a standard NBA game, they play hard but get crushed – and instead of trying to get them a real place to practice or play, or buying them basketballs, the NBA commissioners and team owners decide that it would be better to fire all the players and replace them with people whose only exposure to basketball has been watching a lot of it.  They’ve never played a full game before in their life, but a lot of them did graduate from Harvard or Yale.


It’s a ridiculous scenario, of course, and it would be ridiculous to include it in a story about performance improvement because it so clearly has nothing to do with improvement in any sense.  But that’s basically what education “reform” is trying to do.  We expect people dribbling footballs to be able to outscore Michael Jordan, and persist in the delusion that changing the players is enough to get them into the same game.

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