I was making a presentation about how to raise reading achievement. I was taking my audience through research on what needed to be taught and how it needed to be taught if kids were to do as well as possible. I was telling about my experiences as director of reading of the Chicago Public Schools at a time when my teachers raised reading achievement.
When I finished, a teacher approached me. “What do you think is the most important variable in higher reading achievement?”
My answer was, “The amount of teaching — academic experience — that we provide to our children.”
She stared at me, horrified. “Not the teacher?”
We hear that a lot these days, that the trick to high quality education is excellent teachers. Who in their right mind could be against excellent teachers?
For example, the Center for American Progress (CAP) just released a report showing the importance of quality teachers in Pre-K through Grade 3, particularly for kids from low-income families.
However, I’m more interested in verbs than nouns. The focus on effective teachers — teachers, a noun — makes it seem like we just are attracting the wrong people into the profession. Man, if teachers were smarter, more teacherly, more better, than our kids would do great.
Contrarily, my focus is on teaching — teaching, a verb — which shifts my attention to what it means to be effective. Effective teachers are not just nicer people to be around, but they do things that less effective teachers do not.
For example, effective teaching employs instructional time more wisely. It is teaching that gets started right away — no 30-minute circle times, no large portions of class time devoted to getting a head start on the homework — and such teaching keeps kids productively engaged throughout the day. Observational studies have long showed that effective teaching avoids long wait times by the kids; avoids disruptions; encourages more interaction per instructional minute; follows a sound curriculum intelligently; gets a lot more reading into a lesson; explains things better; notices when kids aren’t getting it and does something about it.
What’s the difference?
I can’t teach you to be an effective teacher. But I can teach you to do the kinds of things effective teachers do. We can figure out what makes them so special and can emulate their specialness. Driving a car like Tiger Woods won’t make you a great golfer (sorry General Motors), but if you can get at what makes him great, then perhaps you can emulate that golf behavior successfully. Experts drool over his golf swing — squaring the head of the club up to the ball time after time. You might lack Tiger’s nerves and reflexes and his muscle memory developed through long hours of practice, but you can work on developing a fundamentally sound golf swing — just like Tiger’s — and that will make you a better golfer.
If the issue of educational effectiveness turns on effective teachers, then you either are one or you are not. If it turns on teaching effectiveness — knowing how to model effectively, to explain things clearly, to guide practice effectively, to let go at the right moment to let the students try it themselves, to review wisely — then we all have a lot to work on. Great teachers aren’t born, they’re made. Effectiveness isn’t a feature of a person, it is a goal to strive for.