On Teachers and Teaching

“Little Red Schoolhouse” – painting by Cheryl Bartley.

With fall in the air and the start of a new school year just days away, it is perhaps not surprising that there has been a noticeable uptick in the number of news stories about teachers and teaching. Some of the more interesting stories I’ve come across in recent days explore variations on the theme of what makes someone a good teacher as opposed to a bad teacher. As is usually the case in these types of discussions, a good teacher is defined as someone whose students’ test scores rise year after year; a bad teacher is defined as someone whose students’ test scores stagnate if not decline year after year. Depending on your worldview, this narrow representation of teaching (as well as what it means to be a student) may be disappointing, but this is the moment we live in – our educational Zeitgeist, as it were – and is what our education system has been focused on for years now. One way to add a bit of nuance to that discussion is to talk about how to help teachers become better at what they do, and how to encourage the best of them to stay in the profession rather than leave it prematurely.

With that in mind, I’ve picked three recent news stories that address the topic of effective teaching, either specifically or in the context of a larger discussion. I hope you find them as interesting as I did.

First, from the New York Times a story about a project to videotape good teachers in a Washington, D.C. school district. Filmed in an upbeat documentary style, these short-ish videos are designed to highlight effective teaching strategies by the district’s top teachers. The goal is for other teachers to watch them in order to glean ideas for how to improve their own teaching style. You can view sample videos at the DCPS website.

I’ve picked one of my favorites to share here, featuring a pre-school teacher named Scott Harding. I like this one because (a) it is rare to see male teachers in the younger grades, so it’s great to watch his energy with the kids, (b) he is so full of enthusiasm and good ideas, and (c) he is very good at clearly explaining his goals and plans to the children, as well as keeping them engaged in “meaningful play” throughout the day. Skip ahead to the 5:00 mark to see a particularly adorable exchange between Mr. Harding and a boy in his class.

Next, from the Wall Street Journal a story about a unique program that pairs prospective teachers in urban Chicago schools with more experienced teachers who serve as mentors and guides. The somewhat controversial program is run by a local organization called the Academy for Urban School Leadership, or AUSL. AUSL works to turn around struggling urban schools with a structured program that includes a year-long intensive training for new teachers, who are then placed in schools with which AUSL has contracted their services. Some union leaders feel AUSL is given too much power when they partner with schools, a relationship structured by a contract that gives AUSL power to fire any and all staff – from janitors to administrators – it sees fit. On the other hand, the program’s individual success stories are impressive, and AUSL has the support of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, as well as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Perhaps most important, however, it has the support of parents whose children have found success in AUSL-run schools.

A short video accompanying the article features a typical day-in-the-life for AUSL teacher Kathryn Filipinni who is at the Morton School for Excellence in Chicago. [I can’t embed the video, so just click on the image below to be taken to it directly on the WSJ website]

Last, from the Washington Post a story about a recent report that examines the crisis in teacher retention in public schools. Based on a three-year-long study conducted by The New Teacher Project (TNTP), their report is titled The Irreplaceables and explains why it is so hard for urban schools to hang on to their best teachers. In what reads as a study of institutional inertia and human resources neglect, the report illustrates that while it is relatively easy to identify the best teachers within a school district, and while principals generally know who their best teachers are, neither the district nor individual principals take proactive measures to make sure their best teachers don’t leave. From the Post story:

Particularly shocking was the finding that two-thirds of the best teachers were never asked to stay when they told principals of their plans to depart. “Our findings suggest that Irreplaceables usually leave for reasons that their school could have controlled,” the report says.

Here is a summary of the report, told in slides from the TNTP website:

The report also describes a U.S. education policy that for at least the past decade has focused on overall teacher retention, without discerning a difference between effective and ineffective teachers. This approach, known as the “widget effect,” treats teachers as interchangeable parts – one is just as good as another – rather than individuals with varying degrees of ability. Also troubling is the finding that while the popular belief is that ineffective teachers “self select” out of the profession, in reality about 75% of low performing teachers stay at the same school year after year, and 50% say they plan to continue teaching for at least another decade.

If you’d like a copy of The Irreplaceables, you can download the .pdf here, or request a hard copy by filling out this form on the TNTP website. It’s 52 pages long, but the excellent graphic design and clear presentation of data gives it more of a magazine feel, and less of a technical paper feel. Overall, a highly accessible piece of research designed for the professional and layperson alike.

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