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.

3 Replies to “The Myth of the Ideal Teacher”

  1. I know all the teachers who in their own ways rubbed off something of their “brilliance” to me – and made me the kind of teacher I have long thought I was/am.

    They treated me kindly – or figuratively “boxed” my ears – they inspired me with poetry (Australian poetry – the local) – or told stories – or did something special for the class – or pointed out something I had done well – or gave me the floor to be funny and make my classmates smile and laugh – with me – not at me! Yet among the same teachers for whom I maintain a kind of love – was one who put down my younger brother with an invidious comparison of him to me. You are so right about the timing – the positive connection point – a kind of hit-and-miss. The story from Richard DREYFUSS is so good – yes – inspiration can be drawn years later out of things which appeared negative back then. And thank-you for that beautiful reference to his film “Mr Holland’s Opus”! I taught many years in Japan – one institution for 13 years – a middle school. In that school were some of the brightest students one might find – out of professional families – all highly motivated and high achievers. Yet over those many years there were two lads I taught for a year or two each – separately – who might still now look back and think of me as a kind of “Wilcoxian” character (à la Richard Dreyfuss) – stand-offs! One a returnee from some years in the US – struggling to find his place back in Japan – and I was an easy fall guy to his fluency in English and his desire to fit back in with his classmates. The other lad…he had a position to maintain – and the subject of communicative oral English was designed (he believed) to let him down. So he made no effort – at all. Where is he now? Had I only had sufficient fluent Japanese then to be able to take him aside and explain how success in my subject was guaranteed – that I would in no way mock or in other ways allow his dignity to be compromised! But I didn’t – I couldn’t… That was 20 years ago – he must now be early to mid-30s. Possibly heading delegations to foreign companies! One hopes!

  2. I sometimes wonder if striving for and trying to maintain the ideal is healthy or sustainable for well-meaning teachers. I know in my pursuit of the ideal, I have neglected my own personal needs and after many years of teaching, I am starting to see my health decline.

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