I am sitting here on President’s Day, a day off of school, feeling guilty for taking time to write this column I promised to Minnesota 2020 months ago, because I still have 30 packets of research note cards to review for my ninth grade students and 120 commentaries to evaluate for my honors-level seniors. Actually, I guess I’m in pretty good shape-relatively. Truth is that these days I don’t feel like a very good teacher. I don’t have time to be.
A recent study found the obvious, that good teachers are the most important ingredient in the education of a child. They are more important than smaller class size or a nicer school with a mediocre teacher, the study concluded. Hmm. All the consultants who, since 1983, have been paid billions of dollars and this is what we have: good teachers matter. Any teacher or student or parent could have told policy makers that, begging the pardon of the Brookings Institution that funded the Hamilton Project study.
It’s what you do with that information that has both undermined our children’s education and literally wasted millions, if not billions, of dollars over the 26 years since Nation at Risk, a study condemning the state of American education, came out. The rush to judgment that we must ensure we place better teachers in classrooms has resulted in a number of errors: Get rid of the bad teachers. Get rid of tenure. Then, move out of the old paradigm that teachers have to be certified through teacher programs. We must find a quantifiable way to measure teacher performance (standardized tests) and then reward successful teachers whose students do well on those tests, or so policy makers have thought. These are the pillars of education reform.
And they are wrong (with apologies to my students for starting a sentence with a conjunction). There are few “bad,” more “mediocre” teachers and a striking number of good and even exceptional ones who are beaten down by a system that challenges them to find time to meet the increasing demands on their time. Tenure is what protects teachers who want to provoke their students to think from the wrath of administrators who are all too often afraid of superintendents’ or the community’s responses. Every teacher needs to be trained as a teacher because knowing math and teaching it are two different things. Finally, while I will admit a good teacher’s students will probably perform better on standardized tests, I refute that these tests are an accurate reflection on teaching at a time when our most fragile students are transient.
I am in a somewhat unique position as a teacher. I came to it later in life after working fourteen years as a reporter for various newspapers, including covering education in the years following Nation at Risk. I have both written stories about our education system and taught in it for the last twelve years. (For the record, I must be a good teacher because every year nearly all of my ninth grade students pass the writing test. The ones who don’t are the ones who are routinely absent or learning disabled.)
If we move beyond the standardized litmus test, however, what does make a good teacher? There’s the rub. Here is my definition. A good teacher is always prepared for each day’s lessons (usually high school teachers have three different classes they teach in St. Paul) with a concept of the larger scope and sequence of the class. He or she is aware of the latest research in how students of different abilities and cultures learn best and plans accordingly for diverse classrooms as well as having a solid knowledge of his or her content area. A good teacher knows each student individually, has regular conferences with each student and regular contact with home, posts grades in a timely fashion to ensure students know where they stand and knows how to model effective use of technology. I am sure there are other aspects I could come up with but these are the big ones.
This is where we come back to my assertion that I don’t feel like a good teacher lately. I have just shy of 140 students this year for whom I am responsible (others have more). I have signed up for a technology initiative that gives me a laptop and LCD projector if I comply with homework requirements of my own. I thought both the hardware and what I would learn would help my students (which it has). I am also part of two initiatives aimed at bringing more research-based pedagogy into my practice. Every single day I have to make a choice between grading papers and planning tomorrow’s lessons as the papers pile up. Do the math: twenty minutes per paper and thirty papers in my senior class alone. That’s ten hours of grading. My seniors do five major papers first semester. That 50 hours of grading-if I’m fast. That does not include smaller daily and journal assignments. My freshmen did three big papers first semester. I have three classes of them, ranging in size from 24 to 36. Calling home and regular student conferences in classes of 30 or more are practices administered on a triage basis. Whoever is in crisis gets the attention. I’m sure that’s not the approach researchers had in mind.
My point is this: class size does matter. I cannot be an exceptional teacher when I cannot prepare researched lessons, conference with students and parents and grade thoughtfully and in a timely matter. To say that a good teacher is more important than class size is to deny the effect of one on the other. I, like many before me, are feeling the slow slide into mediocrity because we cannot keep up. Several years ago I actually went to part time so that I would have a lesser student load and could, therefore, do my best work. Financially, that was untenable and no teacher should have to face that Hobbsian choice.
There is no mystery here-and no money need be paid to consultants. Minnesota’s policymakers can put that money into reducing class sizes and giving teachers the time they need to keep current on new research, plan and grade. They will be surprised at the results they could yield.