The Myth of the Ideal Teacher

ideal teacher myth

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I have a lot of problems with teacher evaluations. I’ve written about them here and here. And while I appreciate the work of people like Robert Marzano, John Hattie, Charlotte Danielson, and others who take seriously the research on effective teaching, I reject how that research has been used to label teachers. And I abhor how it’s led to the myth of the Ideal Teacher.

The Ideal Teacher, we are told, is passionate about helping kids. She understands best practices and only uses instructional techniques that have been proven effective. She’s a disciple of John Hattie’s work and discounts anything below an effective size of .40. She wastes no time in class. She’s warm and caring, and is a master at classroom management. She’s a guru of engagement strategies. She provides specific, timely feedback. She makes sure that students understand their learning targets and that they know where they fall on the success criteria. She’s enthusiastic, patient, and reflective. She is, by every observable measure, a phenomenal teacher.

None of that makes her an ideal teacher to every kid sitting in her room.

Match-Ups

There’s a saying in sports that you’ll almost always hear during playoff time or college tournaments. Coaches sometimes use it to explain why their team was just upset by what everyone thought was a lesser opponent.

It’s all about match-ups.

It’s true of teaching, as well.

It’s about timing: The teacher and student coming together at the perfect point in the child’s life and the teacher’s career. There are students who I have this year who would have benefited more from having me ten years ago, just as there are students I didn’t reach ten years ago that I can now.

It’s about personalities: Some teachers are great for a handful of students in their room, while that same teacher struggles to get through to others.

It’s about luck: Sometimes a teacher can give exactly what a student needs, often without realizing it.

Two Examples

Oprah Winfrey has famously credited her fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Duncan, on more than one occasion. She even had her on her TV show. About Mrs. Duncan, Oprah said, “I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Duncan. She so believed in me, and for the first time, she made me embrace the idea of learning.”

Actor Richard Dreyfuss also credits a teacher for where he ended up in life. He didn’t like Mrs. Wilcox. No many people did. But 20 years after sitting in her elementary school classroom he had the realization that a lot of the things he came to love in life, he learned from her: Shakespeare, literature, reading in general. Dreyfuss said, “She was a mean, impatient woman, who didn’t care about liking me or anyone else, and we didn’t like her. She was tough.”

I have no idea how Mrs. Duncan would have been evaluated under today’s systems. My guess is she would have done well. She sounds like the kind of caring teacher that students and parents adore. But although Oprah credits her for her success, Mrs. Duncan taught hundreds of other kids. You’ve never heard of any of them. That’s not to dismiss her influence on Oprah. It’s just to say that while Mrs. Duncan was the perfect teacher at the perfect time for Oprah Winfrey, she wasn’t for lots of other kids.

But I feel confident in saying that Marzano and Danielson would not hold Dreyfuss’s teacher in great esteem. She was not well-liked by students, probably not respected by administrators, and I imagine barely tolerated by colleagues. I’m also quite sure that had any of the effective teaching researchers observed her, she would not have scored highly on many of their seemingly endless criteria. And she wouldn’t have given a hoot about Hattie’s meta-analyses.

But for one kid, during one pivotal year of his life, she made a huge impact. Without Mrs. Wilcox,  who knows what happens with Jaws and Mr. Holland’s Opus.

Different Strokes

The checklists, effect sizes, and evaluation tools all send the same message: You too can be an Ideal Teacher whose students will all make more than one year’s growth and who will then go on to live productive lives if you simply do the things you’re supposed to do. We believe that a teacher who checks all the boxes will always get better results than her colleague across the hall who only checks half of them.

But the kids sitting in front of those teachers don’t care about checklists or effect sizes. And it’s important to remember that not all of them care if you’re nurturing, or patient, or positive, or fun. They’re individuals, each blazing their own paths in this world, each needing something different at one particular place and time. And they will be influenced and inspired by things we can never know.

There’s nothing wrong with reading the research and trying your damndest to be the best teacher you can be. Just don’t assume that because you can fill up a checklist you’re going to make a difference in the life of a child. And don’t assume that because you can’t, you won’t.

7 Things I Selfishly Love About Teaching

love teaching

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My wife tells me that I need to write more positive blog posts. She has a point. I do tend to write more about how teachers are tired and should work less. I’ve written about what parents don’t understand, and how we should stop donating labor. One might infer that I’m complaining and that I don’t really enjoy what I do. But the truth is those kinds of articles get read more than positive ones, so I write more of them. Blame my audience.

In an attempt to balance things out, I shall now present a positive article. Never fear, I will not bore you with the platitudes most teachers recite when asked what they love about their jobs. There will be no mention of “making a difference,” or “seeing the light bulb go on,” or, worst of all, “Ah-ha moments” (thanks for that gem, Oprah–it’s called an epiphany and it already had a name).  I like those things fine, but they go without saying. If you don’t feel a sense of accomplishment when you reach a student, then you’re in the wrong profession. My list of seven things I love about teaching is far more selfish. It’s great when kids learn and all, but I went into this job because I thought it would gratify me.* And it has.  So without further ado, here are 7 Things I Selfishly Love About Teaching:

*For those lacking a sense of humor, this article should not be taken all that seriously.

1. A Captive Audience (Literally)

When you get to be my age, you think you know things and you want to tell people (hence, this blog). But most adults don’t really want to hear those things because they have their own things they think they know. Students, however, are stuck with me. I get to tell them stories, dispense advice, show my favorite YouTube videos, and read them awesome books. They have to listen! (Well, okay, technically they don’t have to listen, but I can convince myself that they are listening, which is pretty much the same thing.)

2. Appreciation of Fart Poems

I write poems sometimes. Gross ones. My wife doesn’t like them. My daughter pretends not to. There are always a few mature students who claim to not like them either. But most kids love my poems. These kids are my inspiration. What’s that? You want to read one of my fart poems? Well, okay then!

My father’s farts are powerful,
they punch you in the face.
My mother’s farts are delicate,
full of elegance and grace.
Grandma’s farts are old and stale,
you don’t want to be near them.
But granddad’s farts are loud and wet,
as offensive as Eminem.
My teacher never farts,
there’s something wrong with her.
If my preacher ever farted,
it would probably smell like myrrh.
One time my doctor farted,
I don’t think it was on purpose.
She coughed and it just happened,
maybe she was nervous.
My brother’s farts are frequent,
he lets loose all the time.
But my farts are clearly perfect,
just like this final rhyme.

3. I’m a Hero At Least Once a Week

I teach in a portable. We have our own bathroom. Which is nice, except when the toilet clogs. It clogs often. I could call maintenance and have them plunge it, but I’m a man with a fair amount of experience plunging toilets. I probably plunge our classroom toilet 40 times a year. Each time I do, I emerge victorious, with arms raised in an V. To those students who’ve been holding it, no greater hero ever existed. Eat your heart out, Ironman.

4. Being Treated Like a Celebrity

I don’t live in the same town where I teach. In the summer, I therefore rarely run into students. But during the school year, a short trip to Wal-mart almost always results in the full celebrity treatment. Students shout my name. They point me out to their parents. They run up to me and then appear unsure of exactly what to do next. They take selfies with me.* It’s like being famous, without the paparazzi, mindless interviews, overwhelming need for approval, drug habits, divorces, and money. It’s the best.

*They don’t take selfies with me, but that’s because they’re eight and most don’t have phones. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

5. Sleep

I’ve always been a good sleeper. It drives my wife nuts how quickly I can be out once I close my eyes. But I am a GREAT sleeper during the school year. Nothing wipes you out like teaching, and even though I’m writing a book about how to stave off teacher exhaustion, some days just do you in even if you know all the tricks. The feeling of hitting the hay after one of these days is exquisite.

6. Weight Maintenance

I’m sure there are teachers who have an easier time managing their weight during the summer. I’m not one of them. Although it’s easier to exercise during the summer, it’s also easier to eat. And beer is a problem. Also ice cream. I’m sometimes bored during the middle of the day, so I eat. I’m never bored at school, and as mentioned in my book The Teacher’s Guide to Weight Loss, one strategy I use during the school year is to eat the same low-calorie lunch every day. I don’t do this during the summer, so it’s nice to get back to work and not have to run so many miles to maintain my weight.

7. Weekends Are Extra Awesome

Weekends are always wonderful, but they just aren’t that special in the summer. In fact, I often stay home during summer weekends because everyone else is out there doing stuff and getting in my way.  I  just go on a Tuesday. During the school year, weekends are gold. They are the two days during the week you can live it up. They feel like a reward. You know how people say we wouldn’t appreciate the sun if it weren’t for rainy days? (Do people say this?) Well, weekends are like that.

And yes, I realize that in that analogy teaching is the rainy day and I said this was going to be a positive post. But whatever. Analogies are hard. A lot harder than plunging toilets and writing fart poems.

We Don’t Believe in Your Magic Bullets

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

“We Won’t Get Fooled Again”

–The Who

I was talking with a teacher who has a new principal this year. Her new boss is going to turn things around. He’s going to fix what’s broken. It’s a familiar story.

When I started my teaching career, I went to six nights of training in Balanced Literacy. It was the Next Big Thing.

In my fourth year of teaching my district adopted a new math program that had been designed by some very impressive people in Chicago with PhD after their names. The program “spiraled,” and we were told this would raise those stubbornly middling math scores.

When large corporations started using SMART Goals, schools couldn’t wait to jump on board. If businesses were using them, they must be good!

Robert Marzano extolled the benefits of making your learning goals known to students, so it wasn’t long before schools started requiring “I Can” statements to be posted at the front of the room. This, we were told, was going to lead to greater student achievement.

Got behavior problems in your school? PBIS to the rescue!

Having a hard time differentiating? You need one-to-one devices!

Reading scores too low? This program sold by this huge publisher is bound to raise them!

Tired of achievement gaps and mediocre scores on international tests? Raise the bar! Tougher standards! Higher expectations! 100% proficiency goals! That will do the trick!

Once you’ve done this job for a few years, you start to feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. You’ve seen this script before, and you don’t particularly like the ending. Or the middle. Or that damn song that wakes you up each morning.

Don’t Believe the Hype

I have no problem with new programs. I recognize that change is inevitable and that schools should constantly strive to improve. As someone who writes his own books, I don’t resent the peddlers of new initiatives for repackaging some stale idea and trying to make a buck for themselves. Most teachers I know are willing to give new things a go. We know our schools and classrooms are far from perfect, and we’re constantly on the lookout for solutions.

But many administrators, in their desire to convince their staffs to buy in on the latest and greatest fads, go five steps too far. They promise too much, selling one magic bullet after another, as though teachers have a peculiar form of amnesia that wipes their memories clear of previous flops and lackluster results. Like the Super Bowl, the real thing hardly ever lives up to the hype.

We Don’t Believe in Miracles

Schools face complex issues. At best, problems can be mitigated. Success in most instances would be moderate, incremental improvement. But no one wants to hear that. So principals and other leaders zealously pitch their new ideas alongside the unspoken question made famous by Al Michaels, “Do you believe in miracles?”

No. No, we don’t. We don’t believe in your magic bullets. Because if magic bullets actually existed, we would have discovered them by now. We would already be using them.

The overselling of new initiatives isn’t just harmless zeal. We shouldn’t simply forgive those who promise the moon when there is no moon to be had. Failures shouldn’t be dismissed as the folly of an overeager instructional leader. Nor should the responsibility for such failures be left to fall on the shoulders of those who implemented them.  The damage is in the original lie, not the execution.

Every time some earnest and enthusiastic administrator tells his teachers that this new thing is going to be the cure-all we all so desperately want and it then inevitably fails to be such, that administrator loses credibility. Do it once and teachers might forgive him. Do it twice and staff begins to wonder. Do it three times and he better expect some serious skepticism and pushback. As George W. Bush famously said, “Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.” Nobody likes to feel gullible.

The Genesis of Cynicism

It is this baseless conviction in the potential of new things that acts as an incubation chamber for the cynicism veteran teachers are often accused of. It’s not that those teachers are negative and unwilling to try new ideas; it’s that they’ve been there and done that, and like The Who, they have decided that they won’t get fooled again. Their cynicism is hard-earned.

There’s a simple solution for principals looking to implement new programs. It isn’t sexy. Honesty rarely is. But the next time you want to try something you read about–the next time you want to hop on the latest bandwagon–don’t lie to your teachers. Don’t blow smoke up their hindquarters. Admit the truth: You don’t know if it will work. Concede that you cannot guarantee a solution to the problem. Acknowledge past promises and the uphill climb you face to gain your teachers’ trust. Make it clear that because what’s being done isn’t working, you’re going to try something else. Be up-front. Stop pretending you’ve loaded your gun with a magic bullet, when it looks the same as all the other ones teachers have seen slid into the chamber.

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I left out about a 100 magic bullets. Share yours in the comments!

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Other Stuff Worth Reading:

Why Bad Teachers Are Hard to Find

Teach Like a Cat

The Simplest Way to Impress Parents

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Your Messy Classroom is a Problem

clutter

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Are you one of those teachers who never throws things out? Is your closet stuffed to the gills with art supplies, science kits for topics no longer in your curriculum, and student projects from 1998? Do you have multiple filing cabinets filled with worksheets that haven’t seen daylight since the Bush administration, totes containing manipulatives you’d be surprised to learn you own, and a box of confiscated toys that lost their popularity five years ago? If so, you may be making your job and the job of your students harder.

We hold onto things for lots of reasons, and the more committed emotionally or financially we are to an item, the more we want to keep it. We might hold onto a box of old road maps because we have fond memories of using them to teach scale. We refuse to get rid of The Mailbox magazines because there are good ideas in them (never mind we haven’t opened one in a decade and all those ideas are on the Internet, taking up no physical space at all). We wrote and won a grant that we used to purchase keyboards for iPads, and even though the iPads have been replaced with Chromebooks we can’t bring ourselves to get rid of the keyboards.

One reason we don’t like to purge is that we may have made a mistake when we purchased or accepted the items in the first place. It’s painful to admit we’re wrong. Science has found that our brains react to the loss of a valued possession the same way they respond to physical pain. But although it might hurt, clearing out some of your crap will help you and your students.

Neuroscientists at Princeton University found that subjects in a disorganized environment had a harder time maintaining attention than those working in an organized environment. The study showed that physical clutter competes for our attention, resulting in poorer performance and increased stress. You and your students will be less irritable, more productive, distracted less often, and able to process information better in an uncluttered classroom.

The cleanliness of your room can also impact students’ behavior. A study conducted in 2006 by the University of Sussex took an in-depth look at over 100 English families with small children. Researchers found a clear link between cleanliness and order, and well-behaved children.

Like other teacher characteristics that harm student learning, we shouldn’t excuse a teacher’s messy classroom as a personality quirk. We don’t look the other way when teachers are unable to give clear directions because they’re scatter-brained. If we agree that students learn more from people they like than those they don’t, we shouldn’t permit teachers to be jerks. A teacher who’s a bully doesn’t get a free pass just because he experienced rejection as a child and has low self-esteem. Messy classrooms are a hindrance to student learning, and teachers should be encouraged to clean them up.

If you’ve got too much stuff, take these four steps to conquer your clutter:

Yearly Cleaning

Near the end of each year clean out your closets, filing cabinets, and desk. Do it while school in still in session. Many students like to help. Plus, it’s free labor. Your district isn’t going to pay you to de-clutter over the summer, and you shouldn’t work for free, especially when the work you’re doing will benefit your students. Get rid of anything you haven’t used in two years. Toss it, sell it, or give it away. I’ve never once went looking for something after this length of time.

Set Limits

Set limits. Don’t exceed them. Allow yourself three totes for science materials. Don’t buy any more bookcases. Get rid of a filing cabinet. When the totes, bookcases, and filing cabinets are full, you’ll be forced to get rid of something to make room for something new. Setting limits is like establishing a spending budget; when you hit the magic number, you’re done.

Cut Space

Force yourself to live within new constraints.  If you’ve got 12 boxes of stuff in your room, cut them down to six. You can do the same for digital clutter. Limit the number of emails in your inbox to 100. Limit the amount of Google Drive folders to 25. Limit the amount of files in each folder to 50. Learn to live within new limits and you’ll be forced to carefully monitor your stuff.

Would You Buy It?

Finally, if you can’t decide whether to keep or trash an item, ask yourself this question: “If I didn’t already own this and I saw it in a store today, would I be willing to buy it?” If the answer is no — and it usually will be– then get rid of it.

What about you? Are there strategies you’ve used to stay on top of clutter and keep your classroom organized? Let us know in the comments.

One Simple Way to Steal Time for Grading

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Every teacher I know would like to take less work home. It’s a worthy goal, and part of accomplishing it is finding ways to grade papers during the school day. There are obvious times like planning periods, recess, or, if you’re really dedicated and/or desperate, lunch. But I like to use those times for other responsibilities (in the case of lunch, to eat). That leaves grading while students are in the room.

Many teachers never grade papers in their students’ presence. With only so many hours in a school year to make a difference, they feel like when students are in the room they need to be actively engaged with them. They must be instructing, or working with small groups, monitoring, or mentoring. After all, they reason, so many kids need so much, how can they justify grading papers?

They also worry about what others will think. What if the principal walks in and finds them at their desks checking math tests? What if the reading specialist comes in to work with at-risk readers? Will she look down her nose or think the teacher lazy or lacking in dedication?

And there’s the guilt many teachers seem to carry around like a free tote bag at a reading conference. Guilt comes from violating our own beliefs. Since most teachers believe they should do everything they can to help students, taking time out of the day to score student work just doesn’t feel right.

But if you want to reclaim your personal life and stop taking so much work home, you’ll need to carve out time while students are in the room to grade papers. How can you do this in an educationally sound way that’s scientifically proven to benefit kids? Simple:

Give your students breaks.

Transitions Are Stupid, Breaks Are Not

I started giving my third graders five-minute breaks because I hate managing transitions. Conventional classroom management wisdom says that teachers should train students to execute transitions between subjects with crisp, quiet efficiency to maximize every minute of the day. Teachers are warned that sloppy transitions lead to misbehavior and wasted time.

But I always hated demanding these kinds of transitions. They made me feel like a drill sergeant. And I couldn’t help notice that with the exception of the military, adults rarely transition seamlessly from one activity to another. When I finish this blog post, I won’t immediately start planning next week’s lessons. I’ll watch football, or check Twitter, or eat Cheetos.

So instead of quickly switching from one subject to the next, I give my students five-minute breaks. Students can play games on their Chromebooks, read, draw, or just hang out and talk. I let them know when time is running out and count down so they’re back in their seats and ready when the five minutes are up.

Science Agrees: Breaks Are Good

Breaks are good for everybody. They allow us to recharge, adjust our moods, engage with others, laugh, stretch, and refocus. Science backs it up. A 2011 University of Illinois study showed that participants who experienced diversions once per hour did better at a task than those who plowed ahead with no breaks.

Breaks also help with student behavior. Because my students know I’m going to give them choice time on their Chromebooks a few times each day, they’re less likely to sneak onto a game site during work time.

Breaks can also help students get over frustration. One morning I was picking student jobs for our class lemonade stand. One student got upset because he wasn’t selected. If we would have moved directly into more academic work, his negative attitude would have led to a lack of attention during the lesson and a poor effort on the assignment. Instead, we took a five-minute break. I could almost see his thinking: He could sit there and stew and lose the five minutes of free time, or he could do something fun. He chose to play a game, and by the time we resumed, he had forgotten all about his disappointment over the lemonade stand.

Breaks also help me. They free me up to do some of the work I used to take home. While I sometimes use the time to get ready for the next subject, I’ve also used break time to work on my newsletter to parents, write sub plans, and check student papers. Throughout the course of the day, my students usually get three or four breaks, which means I get 15-20 minutes of work time. And it’s not as if I’m checking Facebook. Communicating with parents, writing sub plans, and grading papers are part of my job. I should do them while I’m being paid.

For Your Critics

There are teachers and administrators who will read the above and cringe at the “lost instructional time.” They’re hypocrites, and should the need arise, you can prove it to them.

The next time you attend a long professional development session with one of your critics and the presenter announces a break, interrupt her and ask if the break can be skipped. While everyone stares daggers at you, explain that you value your learning time too much to take a break. Tell her you don’t want to waste a single minute.

See how that goes over with your critics.

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Related:

Stop Complaining About Your Teacher Salary If You’re Working For Free

How Teachers Should Respond to Guilt Trips

Dear Teachers, Please Go Home

 

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