A New York Times Magazine article titled Building a Better Teacher appeared last March. It’s an excellent contribution to the debate about what makes a good teacher. As the article describes, it’s not enough to care a lot; there are many caring teachers who can’t get their students’ attention to teach them anything. Being a good teacher is not strongly correlated with the graduate schools they attend, their teacher test scores, or particular personality characteristics. None of these predicts teacher effectiveness well. Merit pay and high pay incentives, haven’t worked to improve teacher quality (or test scores) either.
In fact, it is so difficult to quantify what makes a good teacher that the latest strategy is to throw out all the “bad” ones and keep all the “good” ones. That comes from the notion that there is some sort of magic that can’t be taught that makes a good teacher.
But the article describes two major issues regarding teacher education. One is the lack of explicit classroom management instruction, something every teacher I have met bemoans about their teacher training program. Doug Lemov, who helped found Uncommon Schools, traveled around the country to observe and record the techniques master teachers would use to manage their classrooms. Rather than some kind of “magic” or innate genius, these were techniques the teachers were often conscious of implementing, but they were so good at them that they looked like magic. He compiled them into a taxonomy and implemented them in the Uncommon Schools training program. After going through this training, apparently even first year teachers demonstrated classroom management mastery.
I can testify to the importance of explicit teaching in this area. Unlike many teachers, it seems, I had the benefit of excellent mentorship by Charles Fischer, among others, at a private school at which I made special arrangements to do my student teaching. It was such a valuable experience, and I took away many new arts and skills to help survive even very difficult teaching environments.
The second major issue is to do with content area teaching. The article focuses on math, which doesn’t surprise me. A teacher can have excellent management skills and not have a strong grasp of the content areas he or she is teaching, and teacher tests aren’t enough to assess that. Deborah Loewenberg Ball started a research project to look at the specialized skills in teaching even elementary math, which include not only understanding how math works, but why certain misconceptions would lead to children’s mistakes.
She also developed a test for Mathematic Knowledge for Teachers, or M.K.T. Scores on this test did translate into predictions of effective teaching. However, the question of how to teach teachers so they do score well on this test remains. In my experience, this kind of critical thinking is an essential part of teaching and learning Singapore Math, and strong training in teaching this program can really help a teacher with the understanding they need to be an effective math teacher.
What are your thoughts?