Good Teachers and Good Teaching

Much recent discussion about education reform has focused on the topic of good teachers.  A common form of this discussion argues that If only we could fire the bad teachers easily and hire enough new good teachers, then we would be well along the way to helping all of our students succeed in school.  There is indeed a seductive plausibility to this argument.  Who could reasonably be against the goal of providing all students with good teachers?  

This focus on the importance of good teachers, however, is problematic because it tends to obscure an issue of more fundamental importance. 

I find that this problem becomes clear when I think about my own teaching.  I have helped many, many students over the course of 35 years of teaching, and I think many parents and professional colleagues would call me a good teacher.  Nonetheless, I frankly admit that in addition to lots of good teaching, I have also perpetrated some bad teaching.  I think it is safe to say, moreover, that my situation is hardly unique.  Indeed, I suspect it is true that all people reputed to be good teachers have on some occasions done a bad job of teaching.  How can we resolve this seeming paradox?

I think the answer lies in the fact that the most relevant measure here isn’t the person per se but the person’s performance. Another way to put the point to to say that a person is a good teacher when she is doing good teaching.  That statement is completely free from paradox, unambiguously true in all cases.  And what it suggest is that the fundamental thing that is relevant in this matter isn’t the teacher but the teaching.

This certainly rings true when I think about the significant differences between the times I have done good teaching and those when I did bad teaching.  The difference was that when I was doing good teaching, I was in command of two critical tools that allowed me to structure the experiences of my students in efficient, engaging, and productive ways, namely, a good curriculum and good classroom management.  

Good curriculum shapes the activities of students in several important ways.  It ensures that the concepts and information the students are exposed to are comprehensive and organized in a sensible sequence.  It ensures that students perform relevant and interesting activities.  It ensures that the teacher has critical guidance about how best to pace students through the materials and how to correct their errors productively.  And finally, it ensures that the teacher is provided with a rich understanding of how people best learn the content covered and the challenges and potential confusions that new learners often experience.

Good classroom management (or, I guess, student management, in the case of one-on-one tutoring) complements the activities and interactions specified in a good curriculum by making sure that the teacher keeps all of the students engaged in significant activities for as much time during the lesson as possible. 

In suggesting the central importance of good curriculum and classroom management skills, I am hardly denying that there are some personal characteristics shared by good teachers, including robust knowledge of the content they are teaching, enthusiasm for their subject, genuine concern for their students, and dedication to work hard to master their craft.  But it is important to recognize that these personal attributes, while necessary for good teaching, are not sufficient.  I am quite confident that when I have done bad teaching, I still retained these personal characteristics.  What I was missing was the right emphasis, the right sequence, the right kinds of activities.

The point, I think, is that if we want to improve education, the most important thing to focus on is what goes on in the classroom, specifically examining how students are spending their time and what exactly they are doing.  Focusing on “good teachers” directs our attention at the wrong level, making it easy to blame bad teaching on the laziness or inherent limitations of certain individuals without really providing insight into how to correct the problem.  The focus on “good teaching,” in contrast, helps us examine precisely on the level where we will find the difference between success and failure, and gives us a much better grasp of what we have to do to prevent our children from enduring wasteful and unproductive lessons.

For this reason I am not a big fan of Teach for America and other similar programs that seek to improve schools by focusing on recruiting teachers from a certain group of people, namely, successful students at elite colleges and university, to be teachers.  As many of the those who have been teachers in these programs can attest, the kinds of so-called “boot camps” that the recruits attend in order to prepare them to be teachers are much too short to provide them with sufficient classroom management skills and command of a good curriculum.  As a result, the benefits of injecting these teachers into the schools, in spite of their intelligence, energy, and enthusiasm, are modest at best and almost always quite transitory.  An additional problem with this model of education reform is that there are not enough magna cum laude students out their who want to go into teaching to fill all off the teaching positions we need.  

Fortunately, however, there is no need that there should be.  People with a wide range of academic backgrounds and abilities can be effective teachers provided that we help them acquire the experience and classroom management skills to implement a good curriculum well.  This fact is something that homeschooling families typically both understand on a gut level and also demonstrate quite forcefully.  Sure there are some moms and dads with Ph.D.’s in astrophysics who are homeschooling their children well, but there are also plenty of parents without college degrees who do an excellent job as well.  And what is it that these successful homeschooling families all do?  They spend a lot of time finding good curriculum materials and learning how to use them!

So, yes, let’s strive to put good teachers in every classroom.  Yes, these good teachers must be knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and dedicated professionals,  But let’s not forget that in addition to having teachers with these essential personal attributes, we must also strive to make sure we have schools set up to give all of their teachers the tools of classroom management skills and good curriculum.  Only then can we be sure that our children’s school days will be filled with good teaching.