Thursday, December 11, 2008

What Makes a Great Teacher?

I read this article by Malcolm Gladwell yesterday, and I found it rather fascinating. It was published in The New Yorker, but I read it online.

I like Malcolm Gladwell -- I heard him speak a few years ago, and he was entertaining. Plus he has incredible hair, which is just a bonus.

Gladwell is trying to figure out how to predict who will be a good teacher. He explains the impact of a good teacher on a classroom of students, versus a bad teacher. According to the article, a good teacher can teach students a year and a half worth of material in a year, while a bad teacher will teach students only a half year's worth of material. The impact of a good teacher is more powerful than classroom size (something I never would have imagined).

He even makes the point that it is more advantageous to have a good teacher in a bad school, versus a bad teacher in a good school.

The problem is that there is no good way of predicting who will be a good teacher. Teacher education programs are completely useless at this.

Gladwell then draws a parallel between predicting who will be a good teacher with how to predict which college quarterbacks will be successful in the NFL. As any sports fan knows, often the most celebrated college quarterbacks utterly fail in the NFL. Gladwell uses University of Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel to illustrate this point.

It's a great article, and it really got me thinking. I do think we need to change the system of educating teachers.

When I started college in 1991, I was originally a French and political science major. But by the middle of my second semester, I realized I wanted to major in English. I've always loved reading and writing, and the English degree just felt like the right fit for me.

I knew even then, in the back of my mind, that I wanted to teach high school English. There were a couple of things that kept me from doing so. One, I was in the Fulbright Four Year Honors Scholars Program at the University of Arkansas, and I felt I was too smart to just teach high school. I know that is ridiculous and pompous, but I was a little full of myself in high school and college. Those of us in the honors program felt like we were in the elite at our school, and we aspired to careers that matched our exemplary skills.

So I was going to get my PhD and do extraordinary research and get published and travel the world.

Furthermore, it bothered me how little I felt that the education majors in my English classes seemed to know. At that time, you could get a BSE in education for your teacher certification. I think you only needed twelve hours of core English classes to be certified to teach English. This seemed woefully inadequate. Add to that the fact that most of the education majors I had class with were sorority girls who appeared to be more interested in their MRS degree, and you can see how I'd be turned off by this.

Again, I know how snotty this makes me seem. Please remember that this was many years ago -- I got better! If you made it through college without being uppity and pretentious, well good for you.

So I got my BA in English, and set out to see the world. I soon realized that I did not want a PhD. I really wanted to be a teacher. But I wasn't there yet.

I had lots and lots of dumb jobs. I lived in San Francisco, which I loved but could not afford. I had many retail jobs. I sold plastic binding in St. Louis. I worked at Starbucks. I was a data entry clerk for the University of Arkansas Physical Plant. I even owned my own bookstore for awhile (which was a disaster).

In 2000, my mom lost her fight with breast cancer after ten long years. I lost my whole world. Then I decided it was time to get my act together.

I moved back to Arkansas (I was still in St. Louis) and enrolled in the College of Education at the University of Arkansas. By that time (2001), the UA had changed its requirements for teacher certification. Now you had to have a four year degree in your content area, and then completed a masters degree in teaching. From start to finish, it's a five year program, but as I already had the degree in my content area, I had to spend one year in undergraduate education classes before I could start the masters program.

The undergraduate education classes were less than inspiring. The instructors seemed to have very little recent classroom experience. But I got through it, because I'd heard really good things about the masters program.

I would say the masters program was valuable, but still not applicable to my actual classroom experiences. For one, I knew I wanted to teach outside of the state of Arkansas (I love Arkansas, but wanted to live in a major city and didn't want to stay in the Bible Belt). Not one of my professors had any experience teaching in an urban district, much less an inner city environment. And I had no idea what that would entail, either. I think I may want to get my doctorate in education at some point in the future, just so that I can help prepare teacher education students for what really happens in a classroom. But that's a post for another day.

I've already written about what my first year teaching in Chicago was like, so I won't go into that again. I'll just reiterate that it was really, really difficult and I cried in my car a great deal.

So I agree with Gladwell's assertion that teachers should be treated like apprentices -- if you can make it through a two or three year induction program and can perform, then you should get to teach and get paid really well. How you actually perform in a classroom is far more powerful than anything you will learn in an education class. Granted, you will have to be given the support to do that -- which doesn't happen for most new teachers.

I'm definitely against the idea of tenure, although now that I have it, I'm glad. But it is crazy that just because I've taught for a number of years, I should not have to worry about being fired. I don't think that is a good way to keep teachers motivated. Until there is a good and consistent method for evaluating teachers, though, I think it will have to remain in place (especially as far as Chicago Public Schools is concerned).

At any rate, the article kind of got my excited. I am not a great teacher, but I do care about my students, and I normally am able to establish a rapport with them that is valuable to me. I want to use my maternity leave to not only take care of my new baby, but to reevaluate why I wanted to be a teacher in the first place. I am hoping that I can start the next school year with a renewed passion for the profession. I need that, and I know it would benefit my students, as well.

1 comment:

foxxychica said...

I don't know how I fare? :(