by Diana Senechal
According to Amanda Ripley’s article “What Makes a Great Teacher?” (The Atlantic, January/February 2010), Teach for America has been gathering test score data to identify the personality traits of those teachers who bring results. Supposedly, if they determine those traits, they can recruit prospective teachers with the desirable personalities and thereby raise achievement.
So far, what have they found? First, the usual: score-raising teachers set big goals for their students and continually look for ways to improve. They are in touch with families; they are focused; they plan their lessons thoroughly. They work relentlessly. But then come a few surprises. Experience working in poor neighborhoods does not seem to matter. A tendency toward reflection does not seem to matter. Perseverance does. Life satisfaction does. But the most consistent predictor of future teaching success—in terms of driving up test scores—is the “achievement of big, measurable goals,” especially grade point average and “leadership achievement.”
This should come as no surprise. If the goal is to drive up scores, then the people best suited to do it are those who can drive up numbers of various kinds—be it the membership of a club or their own GPA. But are they prepared to teach Victorian poetry, medieval history, or trigonometry? Have we even thought about what they will be teaching? Do we have a conception of education beyond the raising of scores?
There is no such thing as ‘teaching’ removed from subject matter. One teacher may be brilliant with math at the high school level but miserable with elementary school. One may flail as a literacy teacher but thrive as a teacher of grammar, nineteenth-century poetry, ancient drama, or expository writing. What makes us love teaching is not only the interaction with the students and the satisfaction of helping them learn, but the subject.
Too many schools and districts treat subjects like so much old hat. At the college level, students are demanding more career preparation and fewer classics. Elementary, middle, and high schools have cut corners over many decades. They have dropped subjects they deem unnecessary; they have made the remaining subjects easier; they have merged test preparation with regular instruction; and many of their professional development sessions focus exclusively on pedagogy. An aspiring history or literature teacher may have to search far and wide for a middle school that teaches and values history and literature.
In part this is an effect of NCLB: many schools have narrowed their curricula to reading and math, and reading and math scores count for more than the others. But part it is the result of a circular track of thought: we have become so accustomed to talk of “results” that we forget what the results are supposed to mean. Our teaching, recruiting, and quasi-curricula are aimed at increasing test scores. Then, because we have limited our teaching in this way, we are left with no vision, nothing to hope for but scores. We are like the drunkard in The Little Prince, who drinks to forget that he is ashamed of his drinking. Even reading and math, for all the emphasis we place on them, have been drained of their rigor and meaning. The focus on ‘results’ has cheapened the currency of results..
If we begin instead with a definition of education, then a curious thing may happen. The results will likely be better, yet they will not rule what we do. We will recognize that learning is for the long term as well as for the next day. We will recognize that some of the most difficult concepts and works last the longest in the mind. They may not translate immediately into results, yet they are unlikely to vanish. We will expect short-term results but teach beyond them.
In such a setting, teaching becomes, at least in part, a matter of conveying lasting knowledge, ideas, values, and habits. In that sense it cannot be generic; a geometry teacher, a philosophy teacher, and an art teacher cannot trade places and do each other’s work. Their personalities are only part of what they do; they intersect with their subjects and with their students. Teachers are interlocutors—they know how to bring a difficult subject to their students, and their students toward it. There’s no such thing as ‘teaching’ unless we are teaching something. The best way to recruit good teachers is to ensure that we are teaching good things.
Diana Senechal taught for four years in the New York City public schools and has stepped back to write a book. Her writing has appeared in Education Week, GothamSchools, the Core Knowledge Blog, Joanne Jacobs, and Common Core. She has a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Yale.