A great teacher can literally change the course of a student’s life. They light a lifelong curiosity, a desire to participate in democracy, and instill a thirst for knowledge. It’s no surprise that studies repeatedly document that the single biggest influence on student academic growth is the quality of the teacher standing in front of the classroom—not socioeconomic status, not family background, but the quality of the teacher at the head of the class.
–Arne Duncan, Speech at Columbia University Teachers College, October 2009
“Teacher Quality” has become a powerful movement in education over the last years, emphasizing the critical role of the teacher in achieving student learning outcomes. With this new emphasis comes a whole host of questions, such as: what is teacher quality and how do we measure it? Is it innate or can it be cultivated? What will teacher quality be tied to? If teachers don’t “measure up,” what will be the consequence? And if teacher quality is tied exclusively to students’ test scores, will this initiative become “no teacher left behind?”
The Current Landscape of Teaching
After working with educators in the field for years now, I have seen the wreckage created by reform fatigue, funding crises, low morale, changing leadership, job insecurity, turnstile educational policies and the pressure of high stakes testing. Teachers are also experiencing a kind of “whiplash”—for years, the emphasis in education was on the creation of a kind of ”teacher proof curriculum.” Now, teachers are being named as the sole factor in making or breaking a student’s success—particularly in regard to test scores.
Statistics gathered in the Quality Teacher’s Initiative paper during the Bush Administration illustrate the challenges teacher’s face.
- “Many new teachers do not feel ready for the challenges of today’s classrooms. Fewer than 36 percent feel ‘very well prepared’ to implement curriculum and performance standards, and less than 20 percent feel prepared to meet the needs of diverse students or those with limited English proficiency. (pg. 3)
- “22 percent of new public school teachers leave the profession in their first three years.” (pg. 3)
- “Fewer than 20 percent of public school teachers report that they are “very satisfied” with the level of esteem society accords them. Teachers also report that they have problems maintaining order in the classroom and face the threat of being sued when they enforce reasonable standards of discipline. Additionally, low pay and the burden of student loans and other expenses related to teaching can contribute to teachers feeling dissatisfied with their work environment. (pg. 3)
This is all evidence that systems are not in place that prepare, assess and support teachers to thrive and express their passion for teaching. In order to create an environment conducive to hiring, developing, and retaining quality teachers, we must develop multi-faceted strategies for systems change. This necessarily involves effective and ongoing professional development, the inclusion of teacher voice and viewpoint in policy decisions, pay schedules that reward continuing education, a variety of approaches to data collection, collaboration with parents, and a shift in teacher preparation programs to include not only skills, content and curriculum, but also developmental psychology, brain research and skills related to cultivating safe, vibrant classroom communities.
Teaching Presence: A Critical Aspect of Teacher Quality
At the 2009 Mind and Life Conference: Educating 21st Century Citizens, Dr. Lee Schulman President Emeritus at The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching spoke of the challenging nature of the teaching profession. He noted that after working extensively with doctors, teachers, and engineers, he was convinced that teachers have the most challenging job because they are required to attend to the diverse and conflicting needs of thirty people all at once.
In an effort to improve academic outcomes and standardize teaching methodologies, educational policy has, at times, sought to look through the teachers and create programs and curriculum that are “teacher-proof”—able to withstand the “worst” of teachers. The mechanical approach represented by “teacher-proofing” falls short because it encourages dry, rigid, joyless teaching that diminishes the unique spirit and capacities of each individual teacher. We all know stories of students struggling through a favorite subject, not because the teacher doesn’t know the content, but because the teacher lacks presence and passion. Conversely, we know that students can learn to love or excel in a “hated” subject precisely because of the presence and passion of the teacher.
In 2000, Rachael Kessler published an article entitled “Teaching Presence”, which identified three dimensions of “teaching presence.”
- Our capacity to teach with an open heart and to know what closes our heart and what assists us to open it again
- Our willingness and ability to hold respectful discipline
- Our ability to be emotionally and intellectually present, responsive to the needs of the moment
Kessler has since added another dimension:
- Emotional Range: our capacity to know, understand and feel comfortable with the full range of human emotions in ourselves and others
As Emerson says, “who you are speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you say you are.” Perhaps this is what teacher quality is—the unique combination of our skills, knowledge and tools as teachers and deliverers of curriculum, along with our “teaching presence”—our capacity to invite students, through our own example, to find authenticity, meaning and purpose in the classroom. This definition of teacher quality includes both strong content competency AND the capacity to meet our students, build relationships, and find ways to “unlock” their ability to learn and develop as human beings.
Diagnosing the Crisis in Education: A Systems Approach
Arne Duncan’s last speeches have focused on the importance of teacher quality and the failure of teacher preparation programs to adequately prepare teachers for the classroom.
This focus on the teacher as essential to learning and safety outcomes is long overdue. And yet this crisis in education cannot be resolved with a single focus. Education is a system embedded in a unique culture and context. Finding a solution must also involve a systemic approach that engages the problems from many sides— we need a fundamental shift in the way we all relate to education—parents, teachers, administrators, policy makers, students. It is time to move beyond finger-pointing and isolated, discrete reform movements and to engage in partnerships, collaborations and true dialogue. Meeting the clarion call of our youth in crisis will require a different kind of activism—one that spends time deeply listening to the system it attempts to “fix” (and not only through quantitative and test scores), involves all the stakeholders including students, and focuses on the development of the minds and hearts of the educators who walk into the classroom with young people every day.
So let’s acknowledge the keystone role of the teacher. Let’s invest in the retooling of our teacher preparation programs and support school communities to value teacher voice and to create clear, multi-dimensional accountability measures. Let’s create communities of educators who value each other’s feedback, who trust one another, who welcome classroom observation and discussion on best practice. Let’s be absolutely honest about the challenge of teaching at this time—with the erosion of community and family structures, with students who experience intense poverty and daily trauma, with a world that is changing radically fast. And let’s clearly define what Teacher Quality means. Let’s offer teachers the finest of curriculum and professional development and compensate them fairly. And let’s also support them to develop essential capacities of open heart, respectful discipline, being present and emotional range—qualities in a teacher that allow classrooms to come alive and engage students in the magic of learning and human development.