Yesterday, my husband handed me a folded up section of the paper and said, "Here, you'll like it." I looked down and there was Charles Blow's current column, one titled "In Honor of Teachers." In it there's yet one more telling of the same old story: A teacher changed my life! Teachers are great! Teachers should be respected, like they are in countries where children do well in school!
In this version, after falling between the cracks and being labeled slow Blow had an amazing fourth grade teacher who inspired him to work and by high school by golly this New York Times columnist was in a G&T program of two!
Now, of course it's great that Mr. Blow's life was transformed by a great teacher. But, honestly, I'm pretty tired of hearing that teachers should be respected because of the one transformational teacher a highly successful person met along the way.
I'm not saying that I'm not interested in transformational teachers or that I don't hope, fervently, that I might be one some day, at least for a child or two. What I'm saying is all the nostalgic talk about that one teacher out of many perturbs the discussion of teaching and sets up unreasonable expectations what an individual teacher should do for his students. It obscures the role of the school in supporting teaching. It elides the function of a community in which a school operates and a teacher teaches. In talking about schools and what they do the great teacher is starting to be a great big problem.
Because what about the everyday teacher who's doing a pretty good job and is working steadily at doing better? What about the school that's cultivating an atmosphere in which the professional insights of teachers matter and where a culture of learning informs all decisions? And the community that's engaged by and with that school and those teachers? These stories don't necessarily make great copy but I bet they make pretty darn good schools.
Fundamentally, great teaching is what matters for students and great teaching isn't isolated in one person. It's supported by institutions and communities, year after year. The romance of the great teacher is only that, a romance. Sure there are methods that all teachers might adopt, but the classroom experience that in retrospect changed everything, that experience relied on a certain chemistry between adult and child, an alignment of need and personality. When you had a great teacher, you had a relationship with that person for just one year. Remember what your life-long partnership was like after its first year?
If we want to talk about what will help students year after year then it's probably time to tear ourselves away from the rosy vision of the teacher as savior and turn to the question of how teacher and student and school and community might sustain a satisfying and evolving relationship. Maybe a student who went through a school where the focus is on fine teaching and not The Great Teacher won't one day mistily recall that one Ms. Smith who showed him all he can be. But he and many others will have had one heck of a time learning every day they were there. That's my theory anyway.
(Here's a footnote! "Attribution Error and the Quest for Teacher Quality," by Mary Kennedy. Educational Researcher. Vol. 39, No. 8, (pp. 591-598) November, 2010.