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Reaction to "Building a Better Teacher"

Jessica Watkins's picture

Improving education in the United States is no small task; articulating its importance and convincing the masses that the classroom is owed a much-needed makeover are chores no less great.  We owe it to our children to better the environment in which they grow and learn, squeezing themselves into tiny plastic chairs until they graduate to “big kid” desks and the wealth of knowledge that arrives magically with them.  Whether or not American education can squeeze out of its predicament (sinking test scores, a lack of dedicated teachers, students that are anything but inspired or encouraged) while maintaining a positive attitude about the future is up for debate—must we acknowledge the current status of education as a “problem,” or just something that can simply be improved?  “Building a Better Teacher,” an article that appeared in March 2010’s edition of The New York Times Magazine, may answer the question.

There was no shortage of prescriptions at the time for how to cure the performance that plagued so many American schools.

Prescriptions.  Cure.  Plague.  

It seems we have a problem.  

The question is, what are we doing wrong?  Is it a communication problem?  Maybe the hierarchy that exists in schools—principals, teachers, teachers’ aids constantly overseeing (smothering) the “free learning” that should be taking place?  No, the article makes it quite clear that teachers are key to the learning process—good teachers lead to even better test scores and even more material covered, and vice versa.  

So it boils down to teachers in the end, and schools are taking this seriously.  “Merit pay,” which rewards good teachers (based on the test scores of their students) with cash bonuses, is becoming increasingly popular in institutions where a “different caliber” of teacher is desired.  This may very well work—nothing does the job like money when it comes to weeding out skill and expertise—but are merit pay and “deselection” (firing those teachers who do not measure up) really the best option when it comes to giving America’s learning environment a makeover?  

What about working to give those teachers who would potentially “deslected” a makeover?  They became teachers for a reason; they must have some glimmer of ambition or talent within them.  If all it takes to bring this out is a little hard work and time, money and trouble could be saved.  Additionally, merit pay could impact the teaching styles of those receiving it.  If teachers begin to equate good standardized test scores with money, there is the potential that they will teach “to the test,” rather than fostering a more open style that imparts skills to students that are useful not just for tests but other aspects of life and learning.  Of course, standardized tests are not a perfect indication of how a student will succeed later on in life—just because a child can solve math problems and analyze a reading passage does not mean they can or will apply these skills in a useful way to a job or career.  If merit pay is employed, and standardized tests become the bar above which students must perform, how are we to judge if they are really learning what they need to?

The article explores this problem—what constitutes a “good” teacher and what is their secret—through the lens of teaching programs that prepare future teachers for classroom situations.  

Traditionally, education schools divide their curriculums into three parts: regular academic subjects, to make sure teachers know the basics of what they are assigned to teach; “foundations” courses that give them a sense of the history and philosophy of education; and finally “methods” courses that are supposed to offer ideas for how to teach particular subjects.

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A large part of what makes up a “good” teacher is how they interact with students in the classroom and hold their attention throughout the day.  Notice there is no part of the curriculum that instructs how to begin and maintain this interaction; there are no “relations” courses that not only offer “ideas” but evidence and facts as to what works and what does not with different types of learners.  “Many schools add a required stint as a student teacher in a more-experienced teacher’s class,” but this does not do any good unless training in the art of “relating” is given beforehand.  Not that this training would be the only thing teachers would use to capture a class’ attention—the problem with this general attention-capturing is that there are as many interests and fascinations in a classroom as there are students.  What may seem extraordinary to one child may seem boring to another.  In this case, general relations training would have to be supplemented by intuitive sense on the part of the teacher based on their experience with the students.


What’s Needed in a “Good” Teacher:

•    Focus
•    Enthusiasm for the subject they teach
•    Flexibility to be able to interact with different types of learners
•    Creativity


It begs the question of whether or not it is better for a teacher to adopt one style of interaction or employ “multiple selves” in the classroom, switching hats throughout the day to accommodate the needs of different students.  And with the intentional use of multiple selves comes the danger of frustration and stress arising from dissonance within the true self—who’s to say that students cannot sense this dissonance and thus become frustrated themselves?  Is their a “sixth sense” present in the classroom?  It’s a topic worth worrying about.  Lemov even has a name for it—Strong Voice—although he uses it in a positive context, saying that different personas are sometimes required in the handling and management of classrooms.

Overall the article takes a very scientific approach to teaching (a practice that is undoubtedly human at its core), analyzing techniques of various “specimens” and studying videotapes in hopes of picking up on tips and tricks that are common to all “good” teachers. The students being taught are unique and varied—they require an approach that will help them individually, and this is why creativity is a must when it comes to teaching.  The danger of teaching teaching “formulaically” in education schools is that a systematic approach may not provide teachers with the skills necessarily to interact properly with a variety of students.  Improvisation is just as important as remembering what to do when a class full of 10-year olds still thinks it’s recess when it comes time to pull out their math books.  


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