Reflective Practice #2: What is a “Teacher?”

gu·ru

 noun \ˈgr-(ˌ)ü, ˈgü-(ˌ)rü also gə-ˈrü\

: a religious teacher and spiritual guide in Hinduism

: a teacher or guide that you trust

: a person who has a lot of experience in or knowledge about a particular subject

– Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Teaching is a flatland. A dead end position. Unless one plans to go into administration, there are no promotions, only raises. You start out as a teacher and end up 30-plus years later as a “teacher.” But are you the same person 30 years later? This is one of those areas in which we as a society and a profession practice a kind of double think: we both know and do not know that a beginning teacher and a veteran teacher are not the same. A veteran teacher makes more money, but does not necessarily command more authority; in fact, they may have not the slightest amount of extra authority than a new teacher.

Itʻs an ironic situation in which the new teacher works very hard for little results, and the veteran produces large results with little effort: is it actually more money for less work? Because research shows that new teachers, on average, have no effect on student learning. On the other hand, I remember teachers who worked 45 years and seemed just as stressed, or even more so, than the new ones. Thereʻs also a very sharp learning curve in the first 5 years. Some improve rapidly and one can tell that they were meant to teach. Others do not improve and will remain mediocre their entire careers. So itʻs do-or-die in this period, and yes, the poor performers are often protected by unions and/or tenure, and hard to get rid of. But incentives to improve are very skewed. They assume the kind of motivation (external motivation) that people in business exhibit, when most teachers, even bad ones, are internally motivated – which is why they often donʻt mind the flat, dead end nature of the profession.

But it is more complicated: the question can become “more effective for whom?” In my first year teaching, I was not effective. I taught low performing students at a high-poverty school. Even though I was one of the only teachers who could pronounce their names – I remember a student named Ioakimi Seumanutafa who was shocked out of his mind that I could say his name on the first roll call – I did not speak, look or act like someone from their community (even though I was, sort of). The next year, I took a position at my alma mater and was able to make students engaged and excited about Hawaiian history. I was one of them. So there are intangible factors, such as a teacher’s own background, that help determine “effectiveness.” Itʻs more complicated still: having only teachers who are like the students creates a kind of incestuousness of ideas that harms learning. [It is precisely these teachers who are at risk of falling into the negative attributes associated with the “guru” above – cultivating a cult-like following.] And then there are some teachers manage to be effective no matter who they work with.

It is for these reasons and this diversity within the profession that I favor the “Master teacher” model. Most systems for choosing master teachers are likely flawed, but the concept at least recognizes that “teachers” are a diverse lot indeed: some are balancing kids, commutes and second (or third) jobs, others simply live to teach, with no other encumbrances on their time. Being in one category does not equate with being a poor or high quality teacher, but certainly it is harder to be effective in the first category. Again, perhaps ironically, veteran teachers tend to fall into the first category and younger teachers into the second, so there may be a kind of balancing out that occurs.

Criteria for master teachers could include: National Board certification, Doctoral degrees (in education and/or the subject area taught), observations and evaluations or some other, hybrid process. Either way, it is time for our “egalitarian” society and profession to recognize that all teachers are not the same, and effort is not the only factor explaining the differences.

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Filed under academia, Education, intellect, Uncategorized

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