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Sure, I've had several teachers over my life whom I considered excellent. But just because a specific teacher was excellent for me doesn't guarantee that same teacher was excellent for every other student he or she taught.

I remember one high school teacher who drove me and a handful of other students to improve our writing, and her lessons remain inspiring and instructive to me, even today. But many other students couldn't stand her abrasive style, refused to work and failed to develop in her classes. Was she an excellent teacher?

My daughter has a great year with one of her elementary school teachers, exploring music, writing and science at a deeper level than she'd done before. But my son endured a very different experience with the same teacher three years later. For my son, this previously patient, wonderful teacher was almost bullying, and my son hated the class. Was that teacher excellent?

That different people have different experiences with the same teacher shouldn't surprise anyone. Education is a deeply personal experience. A teacher can put forth all the lessons he or she can deliver, but education doesn't happen until a student learns. And when that happens depends as much on what ability, motivation and context the student brings to the class as what a teacher offers there.

This is why poverty has such a devastating effect upon student performance. If a student is fortunate enough to enjoy a wonderful relationship with a specific teacher, learning flows. But when that doesn't happen, a student with well-educated and resourceful parents can count on them to fill the gap. Those parents can step up to help explain lessons, assist with homework or hire tutors to help their child learn. A child with poor, or absent, parents doesn't enjoy those resources. For them, the education happens in the classroom or it doesn't happen at all. If those students get lucky with a teacher who has the ability to connect with them as individuals, great. Otherwise, learning just doesn't happen in that class. Over time, a middle-class or wealthy student will continue to progress, regardless of their relationship with various teachers, while a poor student eventually will fall behind unless they hit the jackpot of being able to develop wonderful relationships with every teacher they get.

Which is really hard to do when states are cutting school budgets, increasing class sizes and leaving teachers with more and more poor students to try and develop instructive relationships with each year.

How, then, can anyone truthfully measure teaching "excellence"? More crucially, how can me measure teaching failure? Is it fair to label a teacher a "failure" when he or she is given a class of 30+ students with no home support and whose lack of access to proper nutrition, health care and even decent rest at night threatens their ability to learn? Even if a teacher in that situation managed to pull off the miracle of getting all those students to progress, it's folly to expect that they'll be able to progress at the same rate as a class filled with well-off kids with parents paying for good meals, quiet bedrooms, regular checkups and after-school enrichment programs.

And yet, we've got people like Michelle Rhee, writing books and showing up all over the TV, promoting the idea that if we can just turn education over to the "excellent" teachers and fire all those failing ones, America's schoolkids will live happily ever after.

If we really want to improve the quality of education for all American children, we're going to need a lot more teachers, not fewer. Only with more teachers can we increase the odds of students in a particular grade at a particular school system having available the teacher who's a good match for their needs, their temperament and their experience. Only by hiring more counselors and more administrators will we be able to do a better job of matching teachers with students and their communities, to improve the odds that education happens in the classroom, without relying on rich parents to pick up the slack.

We're not going to improve education by cutting support to all but a few arbitrarily designated "excellent" teachers. We're going to improve education in America only by spending enough to build and develop more instructive relationships between teachers and students, no matter their backgrounds and abilities. The more we focus on that, the more "excellent" teachers we will develop.

My wife often says that the key to education (she's a music teacher) is for an instructor to begin where the student is. You're not going to get far trying to work with an ideal of what you want a student to be, in lieu of working with the student you actually have.

It's the same for Americans and our education system. We might long for an ideal of cheap, easy schools where a few superteachers can ride in and save the day by teaching everyone the same way. But education doesn't work like that. More than half of children attending California schools can't afford to buy or bring their own lunch. Students aren't software programs or gears in a machine. They're people -- individuals with unique needs, dreams and abilities. They deserve the attention, care and instruction of a personal education experience. We've got to work with what we have, not what we wish to imagine our communities to be.

If we want to have and reward excellent teaching, we need to put students in position to have excellent relationships with them. Following the advice of those who wish to cut the number of teachers, increase class sizes, reduce support staff and leave teachers with less of a say in their work won't ever help that happen.

If you care about public education, too, please take a moment and look at The Network for Public Education Also, FWIW, this blog appeared previously on

Originally posted to Robert Niles on Thu Mar 07, 2013 at 05:52 PM PST.

Also republished by Teachers Lounge.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Totally agree, especially with the issue of (11+ / 0-)

    overcrowded classrooms which leads to "behavioral sink," a teacher's nightmare because it requires hyper vigilance by the teacher and distracts from healthy student-teacher exchanges and engagement.  
      It is lamentable that there is so much going on to undermine our once respectable institutions, from the kindergarten classroom to the House of Representatives to the dark secrets of the churches and the lawlessness of our banks.  Holden Caulfield was a cynical fictional kid a half century ago, but he hadn't seen anything of what was to follow.

    Building a better America with activism, cooperation, ingenuity and snacks.

    by judyms9 on Thu Mar 07, 2013 at 06:19:00 PM PST

    •  behavioral sink has a HUGE effect (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Naniboujou, Mostel26, Oh Mary Oh

      The makeup of a classroom has a huge effect on the learning environment and to a large extent is completely out of the teacher's control.  This as much as anything else belies the "excellent teacher" myth.

      My partner is an excellent teacher, at least as claimed by other teachers, the admin, parents and students. Yet, she always has certain classes that are consistently difficult and frustrating.  These classes often contain just a few disruptive kids who sour the environment for everyone, but sometimes it's more subtle than that.

      She's an old hand and knows from years of experience how to maintain control of these classes and keep the learning on track, but sometimes it is a struggle, and the increasing class sizes are making it harder and harder to maintain order in her classes. It alarms her to think that some day she may be evaluated based on what some unaware administrator sees in an observation in one of these challenging classes.

      "I don't cry over milk spilled under bridges. I go make lemonade" - Bucky Katt

      by quill on Thu Mar 07, 2013 at 11:48:20 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  There is only so much a teacher can do. (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Mostel26, Oh Mary Oh
        It alarms her to think that some day she may be evaluated based on what some unaware administrator sees in an observation in one of these challenging classes.
        That's my day in a new school. I teach basically the 5% of students that are Title 1 students at a Title 3 school that make up 90% of the school's referrals (not just from me) all day long. I never see my school's typical A school student. My very worst classes (2 of them) were the only my new administrator was willing to come in and review in the fall semester due to lunch schedules and her schedule until I complained and went to the union. Finally, she came into one of my other classes and her review was completely different. She acted as though the feedback has turned me around but the reality is that with 25 remedial students per class (ESE/ESOL/you name it) that have persistent behavioral problems that are never addressed when referrals are sent down and no parental support, it is hard to win over every class. Some have students who refuse to do anything and bad combinations of students, and administration does not support modifications or do anything about it. (Students have attacked each other at my school and brought drugs to school and they haven't even been suspended for it. Forget classroom misbehavior being handled, because remember these students are a small minority of the school's population and are just ignored.)

        Unless I remove students from class constantly, there is little I can do with certain students. But I know it's not just me - they act the same everywhere. It just so happens that they are mixed in with more "willing to learn" students in most of their classes. Half of the remedial education (reading and math strategies we call them) teachers have quit this year and they've not kept any but 1 teacher and the reading coach for more than a year in those positions.

        Needless to say, I won't come back to this school again. I switched districts and didn't know any better but now I know where to go.

  •  things keep going this way (9+ / 0-)

    it won't be just the kids who won't have access to proper nutrition, healthcare, or a decent night's rest.....but the teachers as well.

  •  You have nailed (8+ / 0-)

    The most important point of all - an excellent teacher is variably successful.  Given all the permutations, it is impossible to set one standard.  Not to mention the fact that students who loathed a teacher at the time can wake up one morning years and even decades later realizing that that loathed teacher made an overwhelmingly positive difference to them.

    Thank you for this.

    Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? . . . and respect the dignity of every human being.

    by Vatexia on Thu Mar 07, 2013 at 06:57:44 PM PST

  •  I came from a school of poor children. (13+ / 0-)

    In my senior year I filled out some forms for scholarships to college and some required a financial statement from my father. The most he had ever earned in his life was $4,000 in one year. This was 66 years ago so inflation makes a big difference, but nevertheless we were all poor. All of us in our little Texas town.

    The only hope most of us had to get through college was via scholarships plus jobs. There were national exams during that time for some scholarships including the National Merit scholarship program--it was in its second year.

    In our small high school of about 120 students we had one teacher who taught all the math and all the science. Near the end of our junior year we told our teacher that some of the colleges wanted us to have high school chemistry. We thought this would improve our chances of getting a scholarship. Our school had not taught a chemistry class in more than twenty years. We had no teacher who was certified by the state to teach chemistry. So this woman, who had taken some chemistry in college at TCU, spent her summer taking enough additional hours so that she could be certified. She also passed out to us several textbooks that were approved for Texas high school chemistry at the time. She told us students to pick the textbook we wanted. So we did as were told. We spent the summer reading chemistry textbooks, passing them around, and discussing them among ourselves. So, she became certified, and we took chemistry using the textbook that we had carefully picked.

    Twenty-seven of us graduated. More than half of us got scholarships. I was one of those. Eighteen of us graduated from college. When we went to college many of us took freshman placement exams and all of us who took those tests scored high in math and science. My chemistry score earned me credit for freshman chemistry at Tulane University, and my math score placed me in a new, advanced math course that was focused on the ways that computers would use math. Computers were new then, and IBM had designed the course in conjunction with some of the Tulane faculty.

    Those of us who graduated from college went on to successful careers in several fields, mine was computers, and most of us retired around age fifty-five.

    Other high school classes that followed ours had similar records of academic success in science and math. All of the credit goes to this wonderful teacher. Instead of calling her "Mrs. Smith," (her name was not Smith), we would call her "Madam Smith." She was a giant in our small town. She won two state awards for teacher of the year.

    One teacher made all the difference to several hundred ordinary students.

    I know one teacher can work wonders. It is not mythical. I saw it with my own eyes. I lived it. She was a wonder.

    Might and Right are always fighting, in our youth it seems exciting. Right is always nearly winning, Might can hardly keep from grinning. -- Clarence Day

    by hestal on Thu Mar 07, 2013 at 07:38:49 PM PST

    •  I am rec'ing your comment (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      susanala, Mostel26

      because that is a wonderful testament to a great teacher.  Kudus to both the teacher AND her highly motivated students like you!

      However, I think you missed the point of the diary.  

      Consider a situation wherein that same teacher has a classroom full of students who are totally uninterested in Chemistry, but 'forced' to take it anyway.  Would the outcome have been different?   I think so.

      Would that same teacher have been any less good at her job?  I would answer 'No' to this question.

      Yet, according to the system that is currently being promoted, Mrs. Smith could easily then be viewed as a failure.  And that is one of the tragedies that  this diary is talking about.

      "Hate speech is a form of vandalism. It defaces the environment, and like a broken window, if left untended, signals to other hoodlums that the coast is clear to do more damage." -- Gregory Rodriguez

      by Naniboujou on Fri Mar 08, 2013 at 04:30:36 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  No, I didn't miss the point of the story, but (0+ / 0-)

        thank you for thinking that I am stupid. People like you, who want to correct others all the time just wear me out. Leave me alone.

        Might and Right are always fighting, in our youth it seems exciting. Right is always nearly winning, Might can hardly keep from grinning. -- Clarence Day

        by hestal on Fri Mar 08, 2013 at 06:40:11 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Although I don't fully agree. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Orinoco, wenchacha, fumie

    I do rec this since you make a lot of good points.

    The thing is there are things that make some teachers better than others. But, you won't get them through gimmicks. Experienced teachers who are not burnt-out are much better than new teachers. Many "struggling" schools have far too many new teachers mixed in with a few jaded burnt-out (because they couldn't get hired in a "better" district all too often) experienced teachers. We don't really give good teachers and incentive to stay at these schools, you can make more money teaching in other places so the younger people all leave unless they really love the neighborhood and kids for some reason ... or if they just can't come up to the standards of richer districts.

    In the end, most ideas about education reform operate on two ideas:

    That we can get something for nothing: that is, better education is possible without spending any more money.

    That any measure that increases the percent of students who graduate must be "good" -- too bad many of these measures water-down educational standards.  

  •  just like with entitlement "reform" (6+ / 0-)

    the education "reform" movement has nothing to do with improving education.

    "Today is who you are" - my wife

    by I Lurked For Years on Thu Mar 07, 2013 at 08:56:35 PM PST

  •  Thank you (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    annieli, califdem, Naniboujou, Mostel26

    Thank you for the comments and recommendations.

    Of course, there are teachers who forge connections with a higher percentage of students than others manage to do. But people like Rhee promoting simplistic "solutions" to an "education crisis" that's really a poverty crisis don't deal in that kind of nuance. That's why we need to change the vocabulary of this public debate away from the "excellence" or "failure" of teachers and refocus it instead on the quality of the connections between teachers and students, and  the need to improve the all the elements that factor into creating and sustaining those relationships.

  •  Well, Michelle Rhee and her ideas are false on so (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Naniboujou, Mostel26

    many levels, but one of them is that there is a cache of superlative teachers somewhere but they haven't identified themselves as such and pursued careers in education.  They didn't study education in college, presumably because they weren't interested in a career in education, and haven't applied for teaching jobs in public education, but still they are out there.  They are far superior to the legions of people who have identified themselves as future teachers, got the necessary education, took the licensing exams, interviewed for the available jobs and when the jobs were offered, accepted them.  They get up everyday and go to schools and work with children in classrooms.  But for some reason, they're the bad teachers.  The ones who've never thought to do any of that,  they're the better ones.

    The elevation of appearance over substance, of celebrity over character, of short term gains over lasting achievement displays a poverty of ambition. It distracts you from what's truly important. - Barack Obama

    by helfenburg on Fri Mar 08, 2013 at 03:08:05 AM PST

  •  Education shouldn't be about individuals. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    That's the whole problem - looking for a superstar teacher or principal to save the day is missing the point, purpose, and mechanics of a public education system meant to service all populations of students en masse.

    Education should be about the collective, but that makes people uncomfortable because they feel that means there's no "personal responsibility" -- which ignores the fact that individual students can't succeed as well in a class that isn't succeeding and individual teachers can't succeed as well in a school that isn't succeeding and that all the pieces working together are the key.

    Too much emphasis has been put on teachers in order to break unions and wrench any sort of control from teachers. But teachers were never meant to do it all - schools were meant to be communities that were supported by their communities and society at large.

  •  I remember a really popular guy (0+ / 0-)

    a bit of a hippie and friend to another popular teacher who was also a hippie.  Long hair, beards, etc.  Both taught English, my favorite subject.  

    I took only one class from the guy and hated it.  I thought he was vain and talked about himself way too much.  He was not a bad teacher, but not what I had expected.  

    Years later the other hippie was dating a girl who worked at the same firm as me.  She was only a couple of years older than me, so, he was dating down his age by more than a decade.  I talked to him after work several times.  Unimpressed.  

    Meanwhile, in grad school there was a professor lots of students did not want to study with because he was a tough grader.  I thought he was an excellent teacher, very helpful.  The A's were not eashy to get.  But that is kind of the point, isn't it?

    The robb'd that smiles steals something from the thief. -- Shakespeare

    by not2plato on Fri Mar 15, 2013 at 11:01:07 AM PDT

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