What Good Teachers Do

It’s a basic premise here at ILYBYGTH: If we want to understand why some parents are so ferociously opposed to evolution or sex ed or ugly history, we have to make an honest and sincere effort to see where they’re coming from. It works for the other side, too. If we hope to figure out why so many progressive teachers and activists are so deeply emotionally mortified by today’s push for teacher measurement, we need to figure out why they feel that way. As usual, the insights of Curmudgucrat Peter Greene offer an eloquent window into that world.

First, a little background. These days, the term “education reform” has come to be dominated by a certain way of thinking. Reformers such as Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan have advocated a new way of looking at schooling. To oversimplify a little, this “reform” mindset wants to measure student progress at regular intervals. Only by getting hard data about student academic performance, the thinking goes, can we know what educational practices are actually effective.

A big part of this “reform” effort has included a new attitude toward teacher evaluations. In the past—again, speaking very generally—most teachers were evaluated by their school principals or department chairs. As today’s reformers are fond of pointing out, those in-house evaluations tended to sugar-coat their reviews. Almost all teachers turned out to be fantastic.

Reformers asked a fairly simple question: If all teachers were so fantastic, why were so many kids failing to learn?

There was also a fairly obvious follow-up: If we can replace faculty deadwood with effective teachers, our schools will improve dramatically.

Completing the syllogism, reformers implemented programs to use student test scores to measure teachers’ effectiveness. Good teachers could earn more money. Bad teachers could get help, or they could get the boot.

This approach to school reform has proved very powerful politically. It makes sense to a lot of people.

  • Good teachers = good schools.
  • Good schools = good test scores.
  • Good test scores = good teachers.

Yet for the past dozen years, we education-watchers have seen the rise of a new generation of teacher protests. Teachers have tried to explain to themselves and to the general public why this seemingly obvious logic doesn’t fit educational reality.

Most of these teacher-protests have consisted of patient but frustrated explanations of the difficulties with quantifying education success. Teachers feel beleaguered, attacked, demeaned, and misunderstood, they explain.

Such explanations might be helpful for outsiders to understand the tricky policy questions of teacher measurement. But they don’t quite capture the emotional distress many teachers feel. I think it is entirely reasonable for non-teachers to wonder if teachers are just lazy and spoiled. Why don’t teachers buck up—some might ask—and submit to evaluations that are a standard part of every other profession?

This morning we read an essay that might help bridge this gap. Peter Greene did not set out explicitly to deflate the presumptions of value-added reformers. Not in this essay, at least. His description and prescription for extra-curricular advising, though, is something every quantifier should read.

I’m biased, of course, because I whole-heartedly agree with Greene. On the narrow topic of advising as well as the bigger picture of the essential errors of those who seek to quantify good teaching. As always, I invite SAGLRROILYBYGTH to point out those places where my personal bias has led me astray.

Here’s Greene’s advice in a nutshell: teachers who serve as faculty advisors for student projects need to keep their priorities straight. Whether it is planning a prom or a yearbook, students need to be allowed to do the work themselves. They need to be allowed to make mistakes. In essence, students need to be allowed to be inefficient, unprofessional, and maybe even just plain wrong.

Why? Because that, Greene argues, is the essence of learning. As he concludes,

Lord knows, I have failed miserably many times. But I keep working at doing better. There are few things as cool as seeing your students realize their own strength, their own voices. For them to look at a project, a performance, a Thing they have created and to realize that the Thing is them, themselves, taken form in the world and taken a form that is completely in-formed by who they are.

But every time you take a choice or decision away from them, you tell them “Well, this is a thing you can’t do” or “You couldn’t handle it if anything went wrong” and that message just makes them smaller. Don’t give them that message. Don’t lead them to suspect that their voices aren’t legit, can’t hold up, shouldn’t speak out.

Confidence comes with competence, but students aren’t always good judges of their own competence (and in some times and places they don’t have much to judge). But we can help them build both by giving them support and freedom. Maybe you are a genius visionary and students will benefit immensely just by following in your wake and sweeping up the crumbs of your attention and direction. But for the rest of us mortals, giving students the safe space to figure out how they will get things done in the world and still be their best selves will just have to do.

What does any of this have to do with teacher evaluation? It doesn’t, at least not directly. For non-teachers, however, those who don’t understand why some teachers are so steamed by the imposition of value-added measures, it can help immensely.

Greene articulates in this essay two things good teachers do that value-added teacher evaluations make difficult. First, as Greene says, good teachers always work to remind themselves that the focus must be on the students, not the teacher. As Greene puts it, “It’s not about you. Yeah, we can type that out in forty-foot font.”

For good teachers, the continuous struggle is to remember that they themselves are not the main point of their work. Their excellent activities and creative lessons mean nothing if students don’t learn from them.

Value-added measurement pushes teachers to reverse that thinking. Instead of helping teachers with the difficult task of what Greene calls “the vanishing test,” value-added measures push teachers to make their own performance their first worry.

And, of course, there’s a more basic lesson to learn here. Good teachers do things that are both extremely difficult to do and utterly impossible to measure. Good teachers have the wisdom to give students what they need, when they need it. Good teachers put themselves last and students first, even if that means the students fail.

How can a test measure that? How can any number capture that?

Maybe more important, value-added measurement misses a basic and vital part of good teaching. Good teachers must allow students NOT to succeed sometimes. Learning, after all, does not happen by simply adding knowledge to ignorance. Real learning consists of fits and stumbles, mistakes and adjustments. Good teaching, Greene reminds us, is the impossible human task of guiding young people through those infinitely complicated steps.

If a test exists that can measure such things, it can’t be taken with a number two pencil.

Leave a comment


  1. As today’s reformers are fond of pointing out, those in-house evaluations tended to sugar-coat their reviews. Almost all teachers turned out to be fantastic.

    Perhaps most teachers are fantastic. Teaching, particular at elementary and high schools is very demanding. Those who are not going to turn out to be fantastic mostly quit voluntarily and go into other professions.

    For me, a big issue is that teaching is really team work. Setting teachers against one another as competitors interferes with that team work.

    And yes, Greene is pretty much right, at least in the part that you quote.

  2. Agellius

     /  November 23, 2015

    “Good teachers do things that are both extremely difficult to do and utterly impossible to measure. Good teachers have the wisdom to give students what they need, when they need it. Good teachers put themselves last and students first, even if that means the students fail. How can a test measure that? How can any number capture that?”

    Fair enough, but we’ve got to evaluate them somehow. We can’t just assume that every teacher is a good teacher merely by virtue of having been hired as a teacher. What criteria should we use?

    • Good question. If you planned to evaluate a teacher, what would you want to know about him or her?

      • Agellius

         /  November 23, 2015

        It’s not something I’ve given a lot of thought to, my kids having been educated in Catholic schools their whole lives (not that I haven’t had complaints about Catholic school teachers). Being convinced as I am that parents are the biggest factor in student success, I know you can’t always blame teachers when students fail. But at the same time, surely not every teacher is as good as the students need and deserve.

        One thing which I think works well in the private school context is parent feedback. Parents are well placed to know how well teachers relate to students and how well they impart ideas and information to them. But that may not work so well in public schools located in poor areas, where parents tend not to be as involved in their kids’ education, partly because they themselves are not very well educated.

        I suppose the teachers’ bosses should be well placed to evaluate their performance, as bosses do in most other areas of employment. But I can’t help thinking that the involvement of unions must hinder and corrupt that process to an extent.

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