CityClub Event: The Best Teachers for our Children

I attended a CityClub event, The Best Teachers for our Children, this afternoon at Town Hall (I was in that building twice in three days!). It was a panel discussion about what makes a good teacher.

The event was videotaped, webcast live, and may be available for future viewing. I would recommend watching it. The moderator was Phyllis Fletcher, a reporter from KUOW 94.9FM. The panel consisted of Jesse Hagopian, a Garfield High School History Teacher; Erin Jones, the Assistant Superintendent of Student Achievement, Washington State OSPI; Jonathan Knapp, Vice-President of the SEA; Margit E. McGuire, program director of the Master in Teaching Program at Seattle University; Tom Stritikus, Dean of the UW College of Education, and Deborah Wilds, President and COO of the College Success Foundation.

The first question to the panel was: What traits make a good teacher? The answers included: uses multiple ways to communicate ideas, empathy for the students' challenges, belief in the students' potential, models care and inspires care, and the ability to build relationships with the students. One panelist said: the ability to acquire teaching skills. We'll come back to that one panelist.

I listened to these six people speak for an hour and a half and, for me, it came down to this: teaching is both what you do and who you are. It is both a science and an art.

The "what you do" or science elements include classroom management techniques, instructional methods, and a whole lot of skills developed through experience and built on theory. This is the practice of teaching. People can learn how to do this. They can acquire these skills. There are a variety of ways to facilitate or expedite the acquisition of these skills, but they will be acquired almost exclusively over time working in a classroom with students. This is the trade, the nuts and bolts of teaching.

The "who you are" or art of it begins with caring about students, connecting with them, believing in them, inspiring them, and requires creativity and improvisational skills to present information through means which are responsive to individual student needs and are developed on the fly. This is what makes teaching a profession - we need to trust professional teachers to use their creativity. We need to give them license to improvise. They need to care.

Five of the six people on the panel saw it this way. They understood that while the skills were important, the humanity was essential. One person on the panel, Mr. Stritikus, focused pretty exclusively on the skills. He specifically said that he wanted to focus on Teaching, the practice, and not on the teacher, the person. He seemed to be saying: "Learn and use these techniques and you will be an effective teacher." His perspective reflected the de-professionalization of teaching and reduced it to a trade. His perspective dismisses the creative element, the human element.

I asked around and other people heard that too. I suggest you find some means of watching the event and let me know if that's what you hear.

A number of other people on the panel spoke about the need for the skills. For them, the human element was presumed so they never mentioned it. The resulting conversation, therefore, was somewhat unbalanced. Mr. Hagopian, Mr. Knapp, and Ms Jones all spoke of their incompetence when they first stood before a class and how they became much more competent when they acquired the skills - through their own formal teacher education and through experience. What was missing was the testimony from the other side. We were missing the personal history of someone who could say: "I learned all the techniques and I was good at them, but they just didn't work because, in the end, I didn't care about the kids." or the person who said "I followed the instructions for teachers and delivered the prescribed curriculum with perfect fidelity, but the kids just didn't get it."

Right now, the loudest voices - the voices that are driving the evolution of teaching - the voices with money behind them - are the ones that, like Mr. Stritikus, focus on technique and dismiss creativity. We're seeing districts who are afraid to trust their teaching staffs. They want to script the lessons, set the pace, dictate everything the teacher says and does. They might as well just videotape a perfect lesson and show it in each class. Some of them actually want to do something like that with computers. They are denying the professional elements of teaching, the creative elements, the human elements. They don't want to grant the teachers any discretion or autonomy, let alone license. They are technocrats or autocrats and they see the world through that lens. It's really sad and discouraging. I'm not sure how we can reach them and help them understand what really makes a good teacher and what really makes good teaching.


Just as there are people better suited to many professions (like medicine), there are varying degrees of people good at teaching.

And Charlie is right about separating the mechanics of teaching from the ability to convey information in a manner that teaches AND makes a student want to learn.

I absolutely think there is a move to de-professionalize teaching.

There are many reasons to do so. First of all, it will weaken the unions.

Second, as we move towards more on-line learning, it will become more teacher as facilitator, not teacher. So we may need fewer teachers.

Third, this move towards the "young and energetic."

I do remember a few of my teachers during K-12 who were younger. You did kind of watch them more and idolize them more. But were they ever better teachers? Not to my recollection. Not worse but not great. The great ones were not new, young teachers.

What you do is set up a whole system whereby you get young people out of college to come and get the most minimal of training and then put them in the classroom. Oh right, we do have that already.

Maybe the term goes up to between 3-5 years but no more than 5. Teaching becomes just another "young" job as you move on.

That revolving door of teachers serves a couple of purposes. One, young (and not staying on) means more malleable. That means not as much pushback to districts from teachers. Two, younger teachers cost less.

Now where this leaves students and schools is another thing. But it leaves the people who control the teachers with much more control.
Anonymous said…
Excellent reporting Charlie.

Let me add that:
the voices that are driving the evolution of teaching have not a shred of supporting evidence for what they advocate.

We are watching an enormous expansion of student testing under Common Core Standards ... and yet there is no evidence that all this testing will either improve instruction or produce better teachers.

What is evident that laws are being violated to bring about these changes.

Again I ask the Directors:
When has a careful review of all options for closing achievement gaps been performed?

Such a review might actually attack a persistent problem ... meanwhile we get TfA instead. (without all that needed experience and practice)

Teachers are doing an extremely difficult job and need our support.
New Board members are needed. Same for the Superintendent.

-- Dan Dempsey
Anonymous said…
"Young and energetic." Reminds me of a funny fake news article about WWI in an Onion book I have: British Soldiers die cheerio, can-do deaths!
Anonymous said…
seattle citizen said…
Haven't watched this event (hope it comes up online soon) but had to say, Charlie, your description of it eloquently summed up the nub of discussion about teaching (and, hence, about public education): Is it merely a set of skills or there creativity involved?

This post of yours is one of the most articulate posts of yours I've read. Beautifully stated. Well done.

WV, as well, was raptio...?
Anonymous said…
Oh yes ... the deprofessionalization of teaching is underway.... courtesy in part to the Current Seattle School Board.

Charlie's take on Dean Stritikus ... It seems the Dean needs to take this described position given the Dean's actions on TfA.

Who selected this guy to be Dean of the UW CoE? That process might need some tweaking.

I guess alignment with the BIG dollars driving Ed reform is the critical factor in advancement in education jobs these days.

-- Dan Dempsey
Patrick said…
I am reminded of WW I as well, but not the British and it wasn't satire. At the beginning of the war, French military doctrine was that the will to win was the most important factor in winning battles. The charge was more rousing than gradual envelopment, so they charged. The red hats inspired morale better than khaki, so they wore red hats. They continued trying to advance by infantry charges against machine gun nests for about a year before it finally got through to them that it wasn't working.

Too bad it's taking much longer to realize that youthful enthusiasm is not the most important factor in teaching.
Maureen said…
One person on the panel, Mr. Stritikus, focused pretty exclusively on the skills.

That wasn't what I expected you to say. TFA CMs have basically no skills. All they have is who they are. They are supposed to be selected to REALLY care about their students and have high expectations for them (unlike real teachers-HA). The skills aren't supposed to be important if you are one of the right people. So funny that Stritikus doesn't see that contradiction.

So basically, Stritikus doesn't care who you are or what real skills you have. All a teacher needs is to be literate enough to read a script?
Jan said…
Interesting, Maureen. I think maybe, from the COE's point of view, they only want to see -- and value -- those things that they provide (i.e., the skills). It suits them just fine to have blank canvas teachers (and to see those canvases as blank -- not as preloaded with people whose level of caring, imagination, empathy, etc., will significantly affect how good they are as teachers.) In fact, any other conclusion would threaten their entire educational model (which presupposes that no one can effectively teach without spending 2 years, and thousands of dollars, taking whatever courses they prescribe). TfA is, for them, just another experimental model to tinker with, in terms of loading up their blank canvases (although the degree to which it conflicts with their current model has caused not just a little strife internally) -- but putting up with the strife is worth it, as it is an interesting intellectual puzzle, but even more because it comes connected with all sorts of folks who give millions and billions of dollars to the folks who help them, and whom they like.
seattle citizen said…
"TFA CMs have basically no skills. All they have is who they are."

"Who they are" is the sales pitch to sell them; the "skills" they are crammed with during their intensive (cough) five weeks are JUST the things that Reform wants: Packaged instructional programs and classroom management plans. There will be no accounting for the variety of needs, learning styles, pedagogies, methods, and other diversities students bring to a classroom (and, heck, diverse teachers bring, too): TFA instructs its recruits to teach to the test and to "manage" through scripting and following of strict routine.

Strict routine and some scripting can be beneficial, no doubt, but only when paired with the creativity and critical thinking in the other half of the teaching equation. But TFA doesn't send forth "blank slates," it sends forth programmer automatons who have been flash-loaded with two programs: Scripted, paced instruction and management via those two tools.

They're "data driven."

WV thinks this is boademic
dan dempsey said…
So do the schools of education pull their weight?

{{Education Students are cash cows for universities ... very favorable ratio of tuition to program costs ... lab science degrees are a cash drain}}

... the author documents a startling difference between the grades that are awarded to undergraduate students in education and non-education classes at universities. Students pursuing undergraduate degrees in education, the vast majority of whom go on to work as K-12 teachers, receive significantly higher grades than students in every other academic discipline. The most probable explanation is that the high grades in education classes are the result of low grading standards. This commentary discusses how the overwhelmingly favorable grades that are awarded to education students are likely to affect the composition of the teaching workforce in K-12 schools.

Education School Grades and Selection into Teaching
August 24, 2011

The standards for supposed research in Education are extremely low. This is one reason why following recommendations from UW in math has been a flop at both the elementary and high school levels in Seattle Schools..... as seen in OSPI test data.

Middle school math scores have been improving in recent years in the SPS.
joanna said…
I don't think that weakening unions necessarily should be a goal or that professionalizing teaching will necessarily weaken unions. If unions do a good job they will in fact be a bridge that moderates between some of the forces that come at teachers and teachers. For instance, I see them as a group that can bring balance to the tension between wanting some guarantees in the elements of curriculum that should exist for all students and letting the teachers to use their professionalism to be creative in some of the approaches and adapt to their personalities and their students.

NEA is generally a good resource on current research and studies.

In fact, I think Unions are more often a part of the solution than an obstacle. Right to work states that don't have teacher unions do not have better schools and, in fact, generally have some of the lowest performing schools.

Collective bargaining can be a good thing. I am not saying I have always agreed with all the actions of unions. However, I believe that they generally reflect a fairly progressive stand on whatever the issues of the time are. They generally promote better working conditions for all.
Charlie Mas said…
I shared my view of the discussion with Phyllis Fletcher, Erin Jones, and Margit McGuire and they all absolutely agreed with me.

Dr. McGuire said that when she interviews students for admission she is looking for those who care; she can teach them what to do, but she can't teach them to care.

Both she and Ms Jones lamented the assault on the professionalism of teachers and lamented that it was coming from people with no basis for even having an opinion.

I seriously believe that Ed Reformers think that teaching can be scripted. Worse, that it should be scripted.

The funny thing - the ironic thing - about all of this is that as technology comes into schools and does, in fact, deliver scripted lessons, those lessons are only good for teaching the rote knowledge and mechanical skills we want our children to learn. The real lessons will still have to come from a real, professional teacher right there physically in the class with them, forming a trusting relationship with them, working autonomously, creatively, and improvisationally. Otherwise the kids will only get the rote knowledge and mechanical skills - the very stuff that appears on standardized tests.
dan dempsey said…
During my 2006-2007 school year, I was contacted by a former student from my first class from 1968 in Cottonwood, ID.

He had become a very successful architect.

He had so many details of that 1968-69 school year locked in his brain.

The thing that he remembered above all else was.... You cared about me. I had no idea why but I really knew you cared about me.
seattle citizen said…
My concern is that "corporate types" and think-tankers appear to think that ONLY rote knowledge and mechanical skills are necessary in our ghettoes; hence, TFA. We know that some percentage of schools/teachers/students WILL be getting the deeper and more meaningful connections, but it is apparent that to some, a five-week-trained rote repeater and mechanical skill demander is all that is necessary for poor people.

And they accuse REAL teachers of not caring about the poor, the minorities...

But given the economy that the corporate shills and Foundation tinkerers live in, I guess they see that there is a need for people minimally trained in rote knowledge and mechanical skill: Assembly lines and farms need labor. The reformers' children will surely get the full education that will keep them above all that.

This is an illustrative piece of history that you might have heard from me before: An Episcopal priest is crossing the West in 1877, on his way to mission one of the NW tribes. He says, and this is a quote, "while I cannot raise them to our level of civilization, I will do my best to make good farmers of them."

There you have it: The reformers will make good manual laborers of our poor, because evidently the reformers believe that the poor need nothing more than rote and mechanical ability. (With the more modern twist of the "data management" that has grown, horribly, from the industrial theories of the early twentieth century.)
seattle citizen said…
@Dan -
And it is evident that you still DO care. I'm sooo glad!
Josh Hayes said…
Melissa said:

"I do remember a few of my teachers during K-12 who were younger. You did kind of watch them more and idolize them more. But were they ever better teachers? Not to my recollection. Not worse but not great. The great ones were not new, young teachers."

This is an excellent point, and I'm a little embarrassed that I haven't really cast my mind back to the teachers _I_ had in school. The more I think about it, the teachers who stand out in my mind, the ones who made a connection, who cared, who worked to teach everyone in the classroom - were all teachers with years of experience.

That's not to say that inexperienced teachers can't make that connection, or work to teach everyone, or, god knows, care. Of course they do, or they WANT to, but it takes experience to learn how to make it all happen. I don't diss the TFA candidates because they're bad people: I'm sure they're energetic and full of beans, but the fact is, they don't know what they're doing. And by the time they learn what to do, they're not teaching any more (according to the TFA stick-with-it statistics).

Finally, it was a nice experience to cast my mind back to all the things Ms. McConnell, Mr. Wrotniak, Mr. Schilling, and Ms. Rohm did for me. I wish them all well.
joanna said…
I think I misread Melissa's post a bit. So I still agree with myself, but should not have worded it as a rebuttal to anyone.
CT said…
I had some younger teachers, but none of them really stand out other than the French teacher I had in 8th grade who was obviously a first year teacher, and pretty bad at it too.
My best teacher was my HS English teacher. She'd been teaching for 30+ years when I had her, knew her stuff, and took no crap from anyone, administrators included. She was fearless, outspoken, and made us support every assertion we made in class with facts. She also went out of her way to support one of my classmates who was slowly heading down a highly destructive path. While she never mentioned it - nor did he - we all knew that she was the one thing keeping him alive and in school. She cared. She hauled him back from his dark place and nagged him about applying to college and gave him jobs to do so he could earn some money.
He's now a teacher in an alternative school setting. She told a dictatorial superintendent where he could stick it -and how- then immediately retired after her standing ovation. I'm still trying to be even half the teacher she was.
StopTFA said…
Met my child's 6th grade math teacher last night. First year teaching MS math, ball of fire, wants ALL kids to develop a love of math. She told me that getting that position in SPS was a difficult slog.

Here is someone who: majored in Math at SU; MIT at UW; carries endorsements in MS and secondary math. Are you telling me that we had to hire a journalism major TFAer while teachers like this one are fighting for a slot?!

Also met a student teacher in MS Science. MIT at UW. When I mentioned that I am fiercely fighting TFA, she genuinely expressed her gratitude. That's nice and all and I thanked her, but I do it for those kids who deserve teachers like those my daughter has....

Aki, South Shore, that's you! I have no doubt in my mind these two would LOVE to teach students at your schools. Don't cave to principals with missionary zeal that is misdirected!
dan dempsey said…
STOP TfA said:
"Don't cave to principals with missionary zeal that is misdirected!"

Well maybe it is misdirected missionary zeal .... then again maybe NOT.

It seems these days that the way to move up the SPS edu-Jobs District totem pole is to be a big booster of Ed Reform.
MathTeacher42 said…
Unless you're working on a Warp Drive, lots of the time spent in most jobs is on drudgery to set yourself up for the fun stuff.

I'd love to have support in figuring out how to make the drudge parts of teaching happen faster and happen more effectively.

If the Tom Terrific crowd were serious about helping, they'd be figuring out how to flow chart processes, how to squeeze out dumb or useless steps, and how to snuff time killing nonsense. Of course, doing this would be the unemployment act for district, state and federal Seagull Education Management.

They're only serious about blaming teachers, not making the systems work better.

If someone pops out of the youtubes tomorrow with the whirly-gig that gets over 90% of our kids to get some kind of basic skills in intro Differential Equations and Multivariable Calculus, with the same "effort" our kids put into memorizing 100+ Make-Elvis-Blush songs - I'll have to get a new job.
Hopefully the blossoming of skills will get that Warp Drive figured out before my ticket off the mortal coil is punched.

Maybe that blossoming of skills will result in skill based management, instead of management based on blaming underlings and living like Pashas.

anonymous said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
anonymous said…
My son plays a competitive, select sport. The head coach of his team is a very experienced, retired pro player, who has been coaching youth for over 15 years, and knows the game as good as anyone could. And he's an all around great guy, and great role model.

In the summer season (it's year round at the select level) he hands the team off to very young, college players, who have the summer off of school. Almost all of those coaches have never coached before, and never worked with youth in any capacity. In fact they are still being coached, and learning the game themselves. And they are not always the best role models either (they curse a lot, have less control of their emotions, make technical mistakes, and often get frustrated). Don't get me wrong they are good guys, that work very hard - they are just young and inexperienced.

Despite their inexperience, each year my son connects much better with the young college players. He works harder for them and really wants to gain their approval. They are current and cool, and he relates to them better than he does the older coach.

He learns much more from the older, wiser, retired pro player coach, but he likes playing for the younger coaches much more.

I'm not sure how this works in an academic setting? But it is something to think about.

Anonymous said…
Thank you, Charlie Mas, for your comment on teachers who care, ed reform, and scripted lessons. I very much appreciate what you said.

And Dr. McGuire has my admiration for the work she does.

Anonymous said…
The student grades data on Ed schools currently shows an extraordinary decline in standards for their students.

As a group Ed schools appear to have joined the business of diploma mill profit centers (income in Ed Schools is far greater than expenditures -- thus they positively impact University finances) Ed schools now act as filters attracting low achieving students while repelling many high achievers. ... given the continual attack on teachers in the media and in governing bodies ... why enter teaching? ... for many today the answer may be an easy collegiate academic program.

How sad is that? Sadder still, these low standards tarnish all Ed school graduates past and present ... demoralizing the many hard working, high achieving teachers & administrators.

... The Seattle School Board insults its own many fine teachers by hiring 5-week wonders => TfA core members.

In Seattle decisions of major importance are made in an Arbitrary and Capricious fashion.... example=> No classes below Algebra I in many high schools ..... Little wonder that our current system stumbles so badly teaching math to the very groups most in need of appropriate instruction.

The district failed to provide meaningful interventions for struggling students and then inappropriately placed many students into courses ... instead of providing appropriate educational opportunity for all.

The district never conducted a careful review of all options to close achievement gaps..... and continues a failing direction in mathematics at the high school level ... while posing as being concerned about the achievement gaps....

We sure Do Have an Opportunity Gap in the SPS ... Dump Carr, Sundquist, Maier, and Martin-Morris in the coming election.

Each High School's results for students taking an SPS Algebra I class in 2010-2011.

Letter that contains results for 9th grade students in Algebra.

-- Dan Dempsey
Charlie Mas said…
Let me see if I can reconcile the apparent dichotomy of Mr. Stritikus focus on teaching (the practice) and Teach for America's focus on the teachers (the people).

This is, of course, conjecture. Mr. Stritikus hasn't said this; it is only a narrative that fits the data. It is a wild guess and shouldn't be granted any more credibility than any wild guess should get.

If what Mr. Stritikus values in a teacher is their ability to acquire the skills, then the Teach for America corps members, being the fast learners that they are, should be among the best at acquiring those skills. Therefore they are excellent recruits for teaching. Their lack of any long-term commitment to the practice is not a liability.

In fact, if he wanted to prove that emotional involvement were not required, only the faithful execution of the techniques, they would make first-rate test subjects.
Anonymous said…
side note; The October, 2011 PCC "Sound Consumer" has letters from shoppers opposed to the Seventh Generation campaign supporting TFA.

And the PCC gave Seventh Generation space to reply.

Excellent opportunity to do some outreach to citizens who tend to be very aware and active politically.

Chris S. said…
Hmm, I gave the nostalgia thing some thought. Most of my teachers were pretty good and seemed to me ancient. Recalling the few who were young, I come up with one class I hated and two teachers who did memorable things that I now see as a signal that they did not know how to deal with me. Which is kind of funny if you know me. I was NOT a problem child... until I got to my forties!
Anonymous said…
There absolutely is a movement to deprofessionalize teaching.

For those who are interested in the interests and motivations behind this movement, I strongly recommend Diane Ravitch's "Life and Death of the Great American School". This book really served to crystallize my feelings about many of these so-called education reformers. There is a phenomenal amount of money in the education reform movement coming from such entities as The Gates Foundation, The Eli & Edythe Broad Foundation, and various private educational interests to fundamentally change American schools. Much of the "evidence" they cite for their positions are not proven, somewhat arbitrary, extremely pro-business, and certainly not tested over the the long haul with general populations. These Foundations and private entities display an arrogance about educational policy that is not supported by their actual successes. These entities carry undue influence because of their financial clout and in most cases support a "free market" philosophy of education that relies of testing of questionable value and accountability (by teachers and principals, but no one else) and without a truly level playing field.
I don't think that running schools as businesses (The Broad Foundation trains business people with no educational background as principals)is the answer so why aren't people asking more questions about the motives of some of these reformers?

American education does need reform but I want skilled, experienced teachers to be the major drivers of it NOT a bunch of entrepreneurs who think that everything of value can be tagged, quantified, aggregated, and reduced to a single number. And that "anyone can teach".

Thank you Charlie for the info and recap of the City Club presentation.
Anonymous said…
De-professionalize teachers?

Who would want that?

Koch Brothers and their goal of destroying public education - while they trade with Iran, among other crimes

It's all bigger and nastier than you think.


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