There’s No Such Thing as ‘Teaching’

by Guest Blogger
January 7th, 2010

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.


  1. Great piece, Diana. As you so often do, you have called us back to what matters, and what we forsake.

    In reading this piece, I’m reminded of an anecdote I heard as a kid, told by the late oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, a pretty fair teacher in his day. He was describing how even though the formula for seawater is known, we’ve never really been able to duplicate it and recreate the conditions of the ocean.

    I can’t seem to find the anecdote online, but if you think about it, seawater is not just NaCl and water. As one writer I read puts it, “it’s a complex and incompletely understood mixture of virtually every substance that has graced the face of the Earth. Anything that can be washed downstream eventually finds its way to the seas, and is incorporated into the solution of the oceans.”

    What a metaphor for education! Some are content to reproduce a formula. Others take a larger view and understand what Cousteau said: “No aquarium, no tank in a marine land, however spacious it may be, can begin to duplicate the conditions of the sea. And no dolphin who inhabits one of those aquariums or one of those marine lands can be considered normal.”

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — January 7, 2010 @ 9:12 am

  2. “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.”


    While I too have a problem with the ubiquity of testing in our schools today I am forever hearkened back almost a half century ago now to a rather profound exchange in Washington on this very subject. It has remained with me to this day as one of common sense, as to beg, how could our schools have possibly operated before 1965 without even considering the possibility of measurement?

    “In securing passage of the ESEA, Keppel had had to win over Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of New York. Kennedy was concerned that schools did not do a good job of educating African-American students. To assuage Kennedy’s criticisms, Keppel had promised that the ESEA, and especially Title I, would be carefully evaluated, using objective measures that could identify what poor children, who were then known as “educationally deprived,” had learned. The problem was that such measures did not exist, which created a major problem for Keppel’s successor, Harold Howe II, when he was subsequently asked to report to Congress about the effectiveness of the bill. Presenting the best evidence he had at hand, Howe was greeted by a skeptical Sen. Kennedy. “Do you mean that you spent billions of dollars and you don’t know whether [the children] can read or not?” Kennedy asked. Howe’s answer was that more time was needed to see if the program could make a difference. Still unconvinced, Kennedy became more and more dubious of the competence of professional educators.”1

    Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, former Dean, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Education Week, 2005

    Comment by Paul Hoss — January 7, 2010 @ 10:00 am

  3. Paul

    First let me belatedly thank you for your very thoughtful essay on differentiated instruction.

    As a parent of three kids with different abilities, I see this all time at home, and am always pained when they have a teacher who seems to be unable to acknowledge that no only my child, but the other 25 students in the class are all going to progress at different rates.

    Your response to Diana’s response to the Atlantic article is reminiscent of an exchange I had with Jim Liebman, who until last year was the head of accountability for the NYC school system. When pressed on the narrowing of curriculum to get students past proficiency goals, he would respond along the lines that “if they can’t complete the basic tasks called for on these exams, how are they ever going to progress to the more complicated ones?”

    I agreed with his statement. I also respect ED Hersch’s recent comment in an oped in the NY Times that those dreaded Scantron-scored exams are among the most accurate and cost-effective tools available for judging children’s knowledge.

    But isn’t it really a false dichotomy that is being laid out here? Children do need a rich curriculum, as people like Hirsch and Diane Ravitch have argued for years. And even more so for children coming from backgrounds where they are not likely to get the external support that others do.

    But they also need to be able to decode, add basic sums, understand underlying principles, etc.

    So the failure, as I see it, is on educational leaders who settle for “85% of my third graders are ‘proficient’” as an end goal rather than “my kids have the skills and knowledge to make sense of the world around them and be successful in the next grade.”

    One might say this is simply their response to politicians like Kennedy who demand measurable goals. But if they are as dedicated as you are, surely they recognize that meeting the politicians expectations is a side effect of teaching their children to think critically, and appreciate the diverse culture that has made their society what it is today.

    Maybe I should be sending my kids to the Utopia public school system? Of course I have heard it’s really hard to find that place.



    Comment by Matthew — January 7, 2010 @ 11:24 am

  4. Paul, Matthew,

    I am not against tests or against basic skills. Nor do I think our current tests have a whole lot to do with basic skills–students can pass without knowing grammar or spelling, and the math tests require minimal calculation.

    But when we let test scores define our values, when we let them even determine what sort of people we recruit into the profession, we are in deep trouble.

    Let us have tests. But let them be tests of real subjects and actual knowledge. Grammar, spelling, literature! Not bland text passages about success, not writing tests you can pass without writing anything substantial at all.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — January 7, 2010 @ 11:59 am

  5. Well, gosh. Speaking as a person who’s taught K-12 vocal and instrumental music (which encompass at least four different, overlapping sets of pedagogical and content expertise), as well as mathematics, first grade, and collegiate-level education courses, I would agree that content and “teaching” are inextricable. If done well.

    The entire argument feels like yet another slam against the “tips, tricks and scripts” school of pedagogical reduction. If so–I applaud. But. Pedagogy is a real thing, as is pedagogical content knowledge–skill in teaching a specific subject.

    There were things in the Atlantic piece I found very disconcerting, however–among them, the idea that reflection doesn’t matter. Perhaps the word reflection is being used in a weenie, poetic way, rather than as synonym for observation, dissection and further goal-setting– but all good teachers use what happened today to build lessons for tomorrow. That’s one universal aspect of good, ummm, teaching. If you’re plowing relentlessly forward without paying attention to the feedback and outcomes you’re getting from students, then you’re neither “teaching” nor building students’ knowledge.

    @Matthew: Having watched a third-grade teacher in Maine work with a group of 8-year old non-readers using complex scientific concepts to build and launch rockets, I do not believe there are gateway skills that must be mastered before students can understand rich content. The students used ratios in formulating fuel, measurement data, the principals of combustion and energy, and even heard a bit of rationale for the American space program. They followed diagrams, and took more risks than the “average” and “advanced” groups. Their rocket also went further. In the process, their math and decoding skills improved. The teacher eventually worked for NASA for two years in their education program.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — January 7, 2010 @ 12:51 pm

  6. Matthew,

    Thank you for your thoughtful feedback. I appreciate it. I am as much in favor of a rich curriculum as the next person, probably more so, and especially for high needs kids. Please remember, my piece was on individualized instruction, not differentiated. I went to great lengths to spell out the difference(s).


    I know you’re not opposed to assessments and I also appreciate your perspective on how we could make better use of them. Please believe when I say my recounting of this tale was not to deride your views on testing. However, the little episode between Kennedy and Kepple/Howe reverberates with me every time I hear someone go off regarding the use of tests in schools today. As accounted to me in class one day, the actual exchange between the two was considerably more heated and in much more colorful language, one I shall probably never forget. RFK was not in the habit of taking poppycock from anyone.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — January 7, 2010 @ 4:08 pm

  7. Paul,

    Isn’t interesting how prescient Paul Simon was when he wrote “all lies and jest, still a man here’s what he wants to hear and disregards the rest”?

    You were clear on the difference, but since Robert has carefully trained his readers to recognize that there is no such thing as different learning styles, I had already defined “differentiated” as a synonym for “individualized.” Not an error that I will repeat.

    I agree with Diana (and more importantly for New Yorkers, I think Meryl Tisch does too) that our current NY State exams are hardly setting the bar that high, even as tests of minimum competency.

    An acquaintance in the Office of Accountability here in NYC once told me that most political authorities with whom he had had experience were perfectly happy with competency thresholds, so long as about 75% of the children tested would be judged competent. The one exception he knew of from his direct experience was a monarchy, where the king was wealthy and just wanted to have well-educated populace. Kind of a sad comment on what we can accomplish in a democracy, but then I suppose that’s why the Roman Senate named Cesar Tyrant, eh?

    As far as gateway skills are concerned Nancy, I am sure one can always find exceptions to prerequisite requirements. But to move from the Fox series of 1st grade books that my daughter used to enjoy up to more complex stuff she did have to develop fluency and vocabulary to recognize sight words, decode using diphthongs, etc. In the same way that addition helps kids understand subtraction, and division helps them understand fractions.

    As I read Paul’s prior post on individualized instruction and mastery of units in sequence, I tied that to the idea that an end of year text given by a state or local authority should similarly be assessing that the children have mastered some basic set of knowledge, other than the knowledge of how to take a test, which is Diana’s (and others’) legitimate concern with our current system. Full of sound and fury…signifying nothing?

    Sen Kennedy would be amazed (or maybe not?) at how well Kaplan and Pearson have risen to the challenge of providing superintendents and school boards with data to satisfy politicians that their money is being spent properly, eh?

    Comment by Matthew — January 7, 2010 @ 5:46 pm

  8. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by rpondiscio: Why “There’s No Such Thing as ‘Teaching’” Great Diana Senechal essay at the Core Knowledge Blog.

    Trackback by uberVU - social comments — January 7, 2010 @ 7:19 pm

  9. Nancy, I do believe that pedagogy exists. And there may be some general principles of teaching that apply to more than one subject or more than one grade. All the same, content and teaching are inextricable, as you say.

    When evaluators and recruiters look only at the attributes (and personality) of teachers and not at the substance of the lesson they’re teaching, their judgments can go far astray.

    I would love it if instead of commenting on my “print-rich” environment or lack thereof, a principal disputed my presentation of Plato, pulled out her copy of The Republic, and pointed to a passage that contradicted what I had said in class. All of this with a twinkle in the eye.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — January 7, 2010 @ 8:36 pm

  10. Diana,

    “Print rich environment…” –such superficial comments, eh? The main business of teaching is invisible. It’s transmission of non-trivial knowledge from the teacher’s head into the kids’ heads, hopefully in such a way that the knowledge will seep into long-term memory banks whence it will assist in deft critical thinking later in life. A principal who does not understand this should not be a principal.

    Teaching is really simple: explain. Tell. Show. What’s complex (or should be) is the content. A physically static class is often much more effective than a dynamic, superficially busy one. To fit complex pedagogical schemes, teachers must simplify –denature –the material. Can we make the generalization that complicated lessons are a sign of degraded education? Of course there can be awful direct instruction as well, but simple, direct instruction is the proper vehicle for rich content. Of course this heresy must be suppressed because if it gains currency, ed schools will be out of business. Ed schools are in the business of concocting complicated pedagogies that harm education but which advance professors’ careers and justify the ed schools’ existence. The “banking” model of education, so assiduously “discredited” by the ed authorities, is in fact THE valid mode of education.

    Comment by Ben F — January 7, 2010 @ 10:32 pm

  11. Robert,

    I love your Cousteau anecdote. Yes: rich broth; micronutrients –not just calories and carbohydrates!

    Comment by Ben F — January 7, 2010 @ 10:47 pm

  12. If Riply’s story is an argument for Jason Kamras’ and Michelle Rhee’s Impact system of evaluation, the Diana’s powerful response to Ripley stands as an antidote to the DC system

    “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.

    Comment by john thompson — January 8, 2010 @ 10:31 am

  13. A lovely essay, relevant to this topic–enjoy:

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — January 8, 2010 @ 11:10 am

  14. I’m late to the party on this, I know, but thanks to Diana for a timely and thought-provoking piece. More and more I’m convinced that I’m a bad fit as a middle school “literacy” teacher, but that I’d be great as a high school literature teacher, and this essay reminded me that there’s nothing wrong with that.

    Comment by Miss Eyre — January 8, 2010 @ 5:24 pm

  15. Nancy,

    Thanks for the link. I was drawn to the sentence

    “Remember the old chestnut: Put two teachers together, and all they do is talk shop? And why is that? Because we are never permitted time to do it on the job.”

    But when we’ve been given time collaborate, I’ve seen teachers becoming even “worse” about talking so much about the job we love. Maybe intrinsic motivation is real. Maybe great teachers know something about cultivating inner directedness.

    Comment by john thompson — January 9, 2010 @ 11:14 am

  16. Miss Eyre,

    I hope you do find your way to a literature teaching position. Maybe if enough teachers leave middle-school “literacy” positions to teach literature, the middle schools will wake up and teach literature too.

    Probably not, though, with all the consultants and coaches hovering around and telling the teachers to focus on reading strategies, cooperative learning, making text-to-life connections, and such.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — January 9, 2010 @ 11:25 am

  17. Two good takes on Ms. Ripley and her articles.
    Both are former DCPS teachers, one just having quit this week:

    There’s irony in Ms. Ripley’s article.
    The teacher she highlights plans to leave the classroom after 3 years to become an administrator (will he keep the bluetooth earpiece?) and he is not a TFAer.

    Comment by edlharris — January 13, 2010 @ 10:55 pm

  18. I fear I’m wading into a discussion where I am dangerously over my head, but I couldn’t help but post an outsider’s perspective.

    First, I’m surprised how often I find myself disappointed at the tenor of the education debate. Perhaps I shouldn’t have higher expectations for our education discourse than I do for other elements of our American conversation. That said, I do – because of the quality and character of the people involved. Acknowledging the merits of an alternate viewpoint shouldn’t be so difficult. A critique needn’t be binary – either good or bad. (And there should be no place for petty potshots. Pointing out the ‘irony’ and the ‘Bluetooth headset’ says nothing about the substance of the issue or the approach in question.)

    Second, and related, interpreting everything so literally so as to caricature a viewpoint cheapens the discussion. TFA’s data may well point to a lack of reflection, but to therefore ascribe to the TFA approach something akin to automatons seems off base. TFA instructors choose to spend several years on low wages and in the most challenging of teaching environments. Do we really believe that these people lack the depth, the thoughtfulness, or the kind of passion that lights up a classroom?

    Our shared goal is progress, and while it often leads to dead ends, innovation often boils down to experimentation. While TFA’s analytical approach may as yet be imperfect, the philosophy of measuring and building correlations could lead to much needed breakthroughs. This is the scientific method, and it has been the foundation of many of the most important developments in the last 200 years. Let’s applaud this kind of thinking. We all want TFA to succeed, don’t we?

    And if that begs the question, “Succeed by what measure?”, let’s retain the perspective that in all of this there is a middle ground, and it will be imperfect. Trade-offs are a fact of life in a world where we face truly relentless global competition, and where the risk of ceding our economic advantage is real. Standardized tests are a necessity, not a necessary evil, but they can co-exist with all that is enriching about classrooms and learning.

    Reality in this debate is shades of gray.

    Comment by Rich Enos — January 14, 2010 @ 11:56 pm

  19. Rich Enos,

    You are absolutely right. We need a little more appreciation of the grey areas of scientific measurement. Standardized tests are not evil–but when we let mediocre tests drive our policies, we are in deep trouble.

    Science is not simply the use of data. Science also involves the use of our brains. If our “scientific” methods are based on flawed assumptions about what education is for, then they will not lead to great discoveries. If we are letting “data” tell us what our schools should be and what kind of person should work in them–without carefully examining the values and assumptions behind the data–we are lost.

    Certainly many thoughtful and talented people go into teaching through TFA. But to use test scores to determine the personality of the “great” teacher is wrong in more ways than I could address in a single post. (I have another post on the subject on Common Core, and there may be more coming.)

    And the comments on this thread are not “binary” as you have implied. I would be hard pressed to sort them into zeros and ones.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — January 15, 2010 @ 10:03 am

  20. <<< Science is not simply the use of data. Science also involves the use of our brains.

    Hear, hear. As Oscar Wilde observed, a cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. To believe we can deduce the qualities of a great teacher by test scores alone -- or that there is value in doing so -- is to make just such an error. It is a cynical view of the profession.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — January 15, 2010 @ 10:10 am

  21. I’m even later to the party, but just had to get there. I recently read the Atlantic article and felt many of the things expressed here. Having taught 33 years in an urban classroom, and now supervising student teachers, I’m still waiting to read something, anything that remotely communicates the complexity of teaching. Because “teaching is not testing” those who truly understand the artform know that it takes years to fine tune the skills. Set against the background of the current climate, what little joy is left has anyone with a semblance of insight trying to fly under the radar. But it is still possible to fly. I know “great” teachers who left the profession just as NCLB was snapped into place. They knew early on that teaching to a test would replace the innovative curriculum that contained their souls. As long as what it means to educate a person is determined by data driven curriculum we’re doomed. But then some of us enjoy a good challenge. Right now that seems to be save the notion of a public school. It’s a righteous struggle. Jump in and hang on and then see if The Atlantic will tell your story.

    Comment by Bruce Greene — January 24, 2010 @ 5:09 pm

  22. Very easy to demonstrate just how false this statement is (a great teacher is always more effective than a mediocre teacher–despite the mediocre teacher’s expertise– no matter what subject you ask her/him to teach): Set up a Teaching Olympics: randomly chosen kids, randomly chosen subjects, ready set go, you have 10 weeks! What you’ll find is the students in the great teacher’s class will learn more than the kids in mediocre expert’s class every time. I don’t care what the subject is–even Latin taught by a novice great teacher!

    Why? Because great teachers get the kids to take responsibility for mastering the learning goals and provide coaching and outside resources to help them. At some degree of difficulty: Calculus, Engineering, an Honors Shakespeare class, Piano! expert knowledge becomes more important–but not in grades K-10–where any liberally educated teacher (an expert learner her/himself) can master the new subject–or more important: identify the key goals required to master the subject– ahead of the kids.

    But while we’re waiting for the Olympics to prove this beyond a reasonable doubt: Physics Project research showed no relationship between having a physics major and being a successful physics teacher.

    Comment by Thomas Edward — January 25, 2010 @ 2:13 pm

  23. [...] ultimately compose the Perfect Teacher. Such efforts are already underway. Teach for America has Formulas that identify successful Personality Traits; Doug Lemov has assembled a Catalogue of successful Classroom Practices. Yet Body Parts play a much [...]

    Pingback by “An Immodest Proposal–Or, Rather, a Done Deal” « The Core Knowledge Blog — March 6, 2013 @ 12:21 am

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