Have You Thought Much Lately about the Definition of Really Good Teaching?

As we begin 2015, thirteen years since the federal testing law No Child Left Behind was signed by President George W. Bush, a generation of children has gone through the grades in a test-and-punish climate and many people have come to define good teachers as those who can raise test scores. These are the teachers who are said to add value—who know how to implement data-driven reform.  Some people imagine that if each year we were to shed a certain percentage of the teachers who seem less able to raise scores, over time we could upgrade the profession.  This is a technocratic, econometric, algorithm-based vision.

Valerie Strauss has used her Washington Post blog three times lately to share columns by Ellie Herman, a teacher who recently took a year to visit classrooms and do some writing.  Herman’s sense of what teachers do is very different.  She writes about what happens for teachers at school every day, and she defines good teaching.

Herman begins in the first column by helping us set a bottom line: what are the qualities of truly bad teachers?  “Do you dislike children?” she wonders.  “Do you find your subject matter dull?” “Do you know what you’re talking about?”  “Do you ignore a large subset of your students most of the time?”  “Are you totally disengaged?”  “Why does this matter?  It matters because as a country we seem to be convinced that our classrooms are infested with bad teachers who must be driven out, and this conviction seems to be the driving force behind most of our supposed  ‘accountability’ measures, which are designed like self-guided missiles dropped down to locate and destroy bad teachers first, before installing good teachers… I also think this preoccupation with bad teachers in the absence of the more urgent strategy for attracting and retaining good teachers is deeply unfair to students and, in fact, unequally distributed because it falls much harder on teachers in low-income communities who teach in far more challenging conditions… I think it demoralizes all of us who are in the classroom to feel that we are continually suspected of being ‘bad….'”

Here is how, in a second column, Herman defines good teachers: “All great teachers have faith—in their students, in the process of learning, and in themselves.”  “Great teachers listen to their students.” “Great teachers have an authentic vision for their students.”  “Great teachers have an unequivocal belief in all students’ potential.”  “Great teachers are calm, persistent pushers.”  “Great teachers practice non-attachment to short term results.”

Mike Rose, UCLA professor of education who visited classrooms for four years in the 1990s as the subject of his classic book on good teaching, Possible Lives, recently published an extraordinary article, School Reform Fails the Test, to reconsider, in these technocratic times, the definition of good teaching and good classrooms: “Some of the teachers I visited were new, and some had taught for decades.  Some organized their classrooms with desks in rows, and others turned their rooms into hives of activity.  Some were real performers, and some were serious and proper.  For all the variation, however, the classrooms shared certain qualities.  These qualities emerged before our era’s heavy reform agenda, yet most parents, and most reformers, would want them for their children.  The classrooms were safe.  They provided physical safety…. but there was also safety from insult and diminishment…. Intimately related to safety is respect…. Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority…. A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space.  And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed…. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility…. Overall the students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that their teachers had their best interests at heart and their classrooms were good places to be.  The huge, burning question is how to create more classrooms like these.”

Please do read all three articles touched on here.  Herman and Rose consider with eloquence and discernment the meaning of the qualities they define as essential to good teaching.  Every one of you reading this blog post has spent time at school.  Next time you read about technocratic evaluation of teachers, I urge you to reflect on your own experience and the wisdom from these thoughtful writers who have spent time watching good teachers work with children and adolescents.

I particularly like Herman’s first question to define a bad teacher: “Do you dislike children?”  My suspicion is that the statisticians and economists developing value-added-measure algorithms for evaluating teachers have thought hardly at all about what it would be like to spend week after week with seventh graders.  As a society we must develop our capacity to appreciate the gifted people who enjoy our children and agree to spend their lives helping our children realize their potential.


3 thoughts on “Have You Thought Much Lately about the Definition of Really Good Teaching?

  1. I really liked your comment, and agree, that probably most policy makers have not given thought to what it is to be with 7th graders for weeks on end. How up-and-down a situation that is. I have 2 16 year olds, the girl went through her major changes sometime ago. Now ,my son is striking for independence. Imagine being a teacher and having this major push-pull going on every day!

  2. Right on, Jan. The next Heights Citizens for Public Education forum on January 28 will focus on good teaching. I think your column is the perfect reading for anyone attending that event. Several teachers will talk about the effects of test and punish and you will be moved to tears by their sense of loss. We are forcing them to do things that they know are bad for the children they value.

  3. The tangled web that is law has ensnared another Philadelphia Principal for “changing” & “altering” students chosen responses, to make their school results higher & better, better for the student(s) and better for the image of the school. Surprisingly to me, this rises to the occasion of a civil offense for “record tampering” and 2 or 3 more jingoistic things. The first were prosecuted in a group of 4, and now in what seems like a year another falls. All are/were principals, no teachers as yet but that may change. How could this ever happen? Numbers trump performance; reputation trumps character. I am sure ALL wee under extreme pressure(s) to show their schools competitive positions, or it was their individual responsibility, even so as to break the law ……or was it public confidence they were trying to create? Ironically, something very similar took place across the river in Camden,NJ too.

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