Value of Great Teachers

Here’s a quite startling article I squirrelled away from the New York Times a few years ago. It shares some truly mind-boggling numbers in terms of the financial value difference for a child between whether they have a great teacher, a merely OK teacher or a poor teacher. How they arrived at these numbers, I’m really not quite sure, but let’s agree to take them on face value for now.

New York Times – The Value of Teachers

To me, there are a few things that the article highlights.

Firstly, there’s a whole history of school culture that left teachers largely to their own devices day to day in their classrooms as to ‘how’ they taught pupils. Their job was to put the knowledge in to the children and this would be checked periodically through testing/ examinations (see my article from a couple of days ago). This was all pretty naive as it ignored the maxim – what gets measured, gets done. Result = some teachers will just focus on getting the children to produce the right results in the exams, by hook or by crook. We’ve even seen high profile cases where this tempted some teachers to cheat the process to artificially inflate student exam performance. However, we all know there were many other ways that teachers had that were arguably just as immoral, but not condemned; writing a really easy exam paper, only testing for memory, priming students beforehand to pretty much know what was going to be in the paper, dropping big hints about what to memorise/ prepare or not, having children do practice papers/ essays/ questions that are almost identical to the ones coming in the exam.

The principle for many teachers was, “If you’re not getting any complaints about my classroom and my children are producing required results in the tests, then everything else is up to me!”

Amongst other things, this has great relevance for the article i wrote yesterday about school sizes. In a big school, if such teacher attitudes prevail, then which teacher a child gets for a year becomes a lottery issue that, as this article suggests, can have a significant impact on outcomes for the child. We are all aware of those conversations that go on between parents (mainly mothers) each year at the annual orientation when they compare which section (which class teacher) their child has for the coming year. They either congratulate or commiserate. Is there any service industry where we would accept such a lottery or such broad disparity of standards and expectations dependent upon the employee (or branch/ unit) the individual customer will deal with?

Teachers defend the status quo on the basis of their freedom of expression, their creativity and their innate knowledge of the individual children in their classroom. However, whilst I believe this is true for the best teachers it has been a tragic hiding place for the sub-standard and inferior. Worse, everyone at the individual level around schools could name who those teachers were!

Overall, I believe more professional approaches from leadership wouldn’t deny the teacher their creativity. In fact, at times we can find that effective systems and processes actually increase the scope for individual freedom and creativity.

I don’t believe the blame lies particularly with any one group (especially the teachers themselves). Nor does the solution. Leadership must step up, own the issues and begin to address them.

There are fundamental issues of consistency, establishment of good practices and then strong execution around; how we recruit teachers in to schools, how we induct them and bring them on board, how we train them and how we manage them on a day to day basis (including appraising and supporting raising standards and continuous professional development.

For example, when i first got involved in schools in India i was quite shocked to see the extent to which the ‘principal as superhuman’ with control and driving force over every little detail meant that recruitment interviewing often consisted of little impromptu 10-15 minute ‘chats’, the Principal’s gut instinct and occasionally a request for the candidate to deliver one or more ‘demo lessons.’ References were (are?) rarely followed up once candidates are shortlisted, except occasionally for more senior roles. If what we want is personalised learning, then I’m really doubtful of the merits of demo classes where the teacher is put with students they don’t know – this can only check for their skills in ‘delivering stuff’. What do we recruit for? If we believe that what matters are a set of skills and competencies, character traits and student-centricity, then shouldn’t we be working to develop recruitment methods that focus more on these things. Otherwise, we’re claiming to have new perspectives in terms of our schools’ visions, but continuing to recruit to support the old ways.

In my experience, teachers who join a school at the start of an academic year undergo some form of induction programme, may be assigned a buddy to help them acclimatize and generally have some sort of structured induction. However, quite a high proportion of teachers join during the year, especially in newer schools and then the induction pattern is far more patchy. This reinforces a set of messages that how the teacher approaches his/ her classroom is largely their choice, rather than formalising a set of expectations and beginning a process of alignment to the vision and mission of the school and how it chooses to manifest those in the day to day work of teachers.

There is a saying that has always struck a chord with me, “learning hasn’t taken place until behaviour has changed.” Way too much professional development and training for teachers just feels and looks like going through the motions and too little changes as a result in terms of what teachers do and how they do it. One of the objectives of PD should be to embed certain practices as common ‘minimum standards’ expected by the school in every classroom, taught to every teacher and coached to become standards parts of daily practice. I stress again, this is not to deny the freedom of creativity, spontaneity or individual expression. Those teachers who advocate for no such standards must be looked upon with suspicion as advocating a free-for-all without quality that makes the classroom more about the teacher and less about the child, their learning and what a parent has a right to expect.

The above saying can be put together with another – “Training without coaching follow up is mere entertainment.” I’m not sure who said it, but I believe it wholeheartedly. We need, if necessary, in many schools to reduce the variety of training, focus on the key deliverables that make a difference and then train them to a level and degree supplemented by on the job daily coaching that makes very clear that whilst a teacher will receive every support to attain the standards and levels expected, they are not optional, subject to the whimsy of the individual teacher. There’s a soft and a hard aspect to this – coaching is not soft on accountability. Consistency and congruence of expectations of the leadership team and supervisors is vital. Rubrics can be used in teacher PD as much as in student learning to clearly guide towards effective and expected levels of performance.

Perhaps the biggest factor that can determine the extent to which schools can achieve such standards is leadership – not necessarily that of one individual, but of the full leadership team in the school. Time allocation of leaders needs to reflect the importance of these things. In terms of Covey time management approaches it’s about ensuring that school day time is not all sapped by the urgent (whether important or less so) to the point where those things which are important but not necessarily pressing and urgent get squeezed out.

It’s also vital that the leadership culture is right. Too often, I have seen or experienced school environments where the vision and mission talk of wanting children to grow as lifelong learners, to be self-directing, to have good character, self-discipline, to be empathic, caring etc, to be creative, hard working etc. and yet have day to day things happening that talk of a real culture which is top-down, command and control and directive in terms of discipline. These are not congruent, but at times leaders are responding to informal driving forces that are leading culture in to dangerous directions. If teachers are uncomfortable about being truly accountable, it’s the easiest thing in the world to misbehave a few times to the point where the leaders then get tempted to fall back on command and control, stick and carrot and top-down. Now, the teacher can say – I am not responsible. I do what I’m told, how I’m told, when I’m told. They treat pupils likewise. In the meantime, the culture informally becomes one of seeking to ‘get away with things’, to defy and undermine the command and control based rules because there’s no sense of ownership.

In short, I believe great schools with great leaders are likely to have lots of great teachers. When those things are lacking, the presence or absence of great teachers will be a scattered, inconsistent thing and parents will continue to see their child’s education as a lottery based on who teaches them.

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