One of the beliefs behind the American system of education is that good education happens best within a range of student backgrounds and abilities. Students working together are inspired by those doing better while they reinforce their knowledge by aiding those doing worse. There are limits, but the vast majority of us can contribute to the success of any classroom. This is true even in “elite” classrooms, as it is in “special needs” ones. Even when they’ve been selected out of the mainstream, students work at differing levels and with distinct abilities. The whole point of the classroom is to use this mix effectively in providing education for all.
One of the reason we expose our students to a variety of teachers stems from a related understanding: Different teachers have different skills and backgrounds, and provide their students with different things. Each student responds differently to different teachers, some working well with one, some with another–but all do need to learn to work with all, another of the assumptions behind American education.
There are three points, here:
- Everyone can learn.
- Each learns best in a particular, perhaps distinct circumstance.
- The best education has flexibility built in, meeting differing needs of different individuals.
If we believe that education based on these points is best for all, we separate students out only in extreme circumstances. As teachers, we work with all of the members of the classes assigned to us. If we believe in this, we never do what I’ve seen some college professors do, which is push students out of our courses until only those remain who we can easily “teach.” No good teacher believes that good teaching means only working with good students. Instead, we use the “personality” of the whole to reach and help even its weakest members, a process that also aids the strongest (the truth of this lies behind Fred Keller’s Personalized System of Instruction and Benjamin Bloom’s Mastery).
We never start with the idea of failing the bad, of getting rid of those who don’t meet our standards. Yes, some do fail, and others never live up to their potential. But we always start with the belief that all can succeed. And we don’t kick them out on the basis of one test, or even two. In our public schools, we keep trying as long as we can. Even in our colleges, it takes a long time for someone to fail out completely. A bad student, we know, is a potentially good student–and the process of going from bad to good can help not only that student, but all of the others he or she comes into contact with.
Most of us understand this about students. Why, then, do we lay aside our knowledge when it comes to how we evaluate teachers?
Stereotypes and visions of evil unions leave many of us imagining education as the refuge of the lazy and the coddled. But, as anyone who has taught will tell you, that’s not the case, certainly not in most public schools. Most teachers work hard in difficult circumstances, and would also like to work “better.” They can’t do this, though, when their livelihood is dependent on student scores on standardized tests, for the tests have been established as “make-or-break.”
We provide very little possibility for real professional development in our schools and colleges. In schools, we rely on mentoring (a good idea, but not nearly enough), farming most of the rest out to Masters in Education programs, many of dubious value. In colleges, we have hardly more than an occasional “observation.” It’s little wonder that outsiders, today, continually yell that we must get rid of the bad teachers. Certainly, we’re doing little to make them better.
We should be, if we believe in the principles behind American education. And we could be. Opening classroom doors, team teaching, taking teachers from the front of the room and mixing them with the students, professional-development courses within the walls of individual schools… these and much more can improve the teaching of all but a few in the profession.
Know what? The very processes of working with teachers will also improve the learning for the students. It doesn’t just wait for the end. Better students learn more by helping those having troubles, the ones in trouble also learn more. just so, students learn more when their teachers are learning. In fact, they learn best when the teacher, like them, is struggling and working hard–in a protective and supportive environment.
Anyone who has been to college has seen this. The professor who has taught the class year after year, using the same notes, the same texts, the same exams, teaches much more poorly than the new instructor feeling her or his way through the material at the same time the students are. Learning is collaborative, and that collaboration extends to the teacher.
No good teacher “knows it all” when entering the classroom. A good teacher may be learning things different from what the student is learning, but a good teacher is learning, nonetheless. Until we recognize this, and stop our punitive evaluations, replacing them with a system fostering growth and improvement, our schools and colleges will never improve, but will continue to be mired in accusation and mediocrity.