In Praise of the Unheralded

allen watkin from London, UK [CC BY-SA 2.0 (
Too much of what goes on around the teaching profession these days seems designed to undermine the confidence and effectiveness of teachers. I know, it’s not meant that way, not really. But low pay, false narratives about “failing” schools, imposed methodologies and mythical “outcomes,” the quantification of assessment, and the fallacious idea that “anyone can do it” (backed by training programs claiming a few weeks preparation is enough before entering the classroom) tell us otherwise.

Teaching is hard enough without this nonsense. It requires work and sacrificing one’s ego for the benefit of a room full of students, most of whom would rather be anyplace else. The teacher may seem to be the center of the classroom, but the teacher fails when that becomes the truth–and stopping that is exhausting. Teaching requires constant attention to two things (more, actually, but these are critical), the goals of the lesson and the paths of individual learners, two things that diverge as each class session evolves. Teaching requires adapting syllabi and lesson plans constantly as the reality of student progress unfolds.

No one cares about any of this, or so it seems when we look at discussions of teaching and teachers in the public sphere. Instead of recognizing the difficulties all teachers work to overcome (and do, much of the time), people keep telling me and others about brilliant “master teachers” who shine in the classroom. I’m supposed to be impressed when they mention the performances of colleagues who win teaching awards or have consistently high Student Evaluation of Teaching (SET) scores. And I’m expected to applaud when I hear others brag about how tough they are in their grading or how far their star students have gone. I guess I’m supposed to be abashed or moved to shut up, sit at their feet and learn; after all, I concentrate only on the everyday and on the students who need help, so I must be a failing teacher.

But master teachers, I find  when I look into it, are generally nothing more than people who have been doing it for a long time—and many of them operate, today, by rote. The prize winners, I discover, are simply those who spend their time creating good paper trails for their teaching—they know they are to be selected for awards by people who have never seen them in the classroom but who do look through files. SET scores, I’ve learned, are easily manipulated (I won’t bother to count the ways here). Fighting grade inflation or pressuring students, from what I’ve seen, doesn’t improve learning (though it certainly increases student jitters). And those star students,  the ones people are so proud of, are the ones who needed the least teaching in the first place, having come into the course ready to go out.

Teaching, to me, shouldn’t ever be about the teacher. The focus on stellar performance is misguided; my yawns, when people brag of classroom success, stem from what I see as misplaced rewards and misconceptions about my profession. I really don’t care how wonderful any particular instructor may or may not appear to be—or whether accolades are really deserved. None of this has much to do with the core of what I and all of those thousands upon thousands of my colleagues do each day, work that is unsung and under-rewarded. Teaching, effective teaching, isn’t a popularity contest or a competition to see who can use contemporary bells and whistles most obviously. No, it’s a task, and one that’s simply about the students—all of the students—and about their small successes. It’s not about the three or four students in the front row hanging onto every word—that’s not enough—but it is about everyone in the room, including those in the back row trying to hide the smartphones on their knees, and is about the small steps they take each day—when things go well.

Teaching, real teaching, isn’t about separating the wheat from the chaff, but about finding the fecund grain in each and every student. Teaching means stepping away from one’s self and one’s pride and focusing exclusively on the students the teacher is tasked with instructing. I’ve come to distrust anyone who tells me what a good teacher they are, or who has students flocking after them down the hall, competing for attention. A good teacher doesn’t need that; their students move on successfully and without comment or notice—or most of them do. A good teacher doesn’t weed out a class, starting with 25 students and ending up with ten.

Invisible and underpaid, good teachers spend countless hours thinking about the students in their classes and about what’s going to work this time and with this particular group of students. A good teacher fails to reach goals, fails all the time and constantly asks why, while recognizing that no answer will be universal. If their students come out of the course with a little more poise and confidence than they had when they went it—or a tad greater skills and knowledge (though these may not be of the quantifiable sort), the teacher has succeeded, even though no one, not even a student, may have noticed.

Good teachers know that failure is part of the curriculum, not failure by the students but teacher failure leading to something new, failure that teaches both instructor and students. A good teacher takes risks so that students can learn from them and take chances of their own, perhaps more intelligent chances.

Good teachers are not those who hanker to teach honors students, who wish to bask in reflected glory from the achievements of those who attended their classes. Good teachers don’t care to segregate students but are willing to engage with even “difficult” learners. They know they will not succeed equally with every student, that some need things they can’t give, but they give what they can and direct students to those places that might be better for them. Teaching styles and effectiveness, good teachers know, work differently with different personalities. Good teachers recognize the value of exposing students to a range of pedagogies and personalities. Their way is never the only way; they know that different students learn differently and that the constrictions of educational systems are hinderances to be overcome not means for excusing failure.

Teaching is not about stars, either at the front of the room or among the students.

Teaching is about learning, and about constantly learning the myriad ways of it. It’s about striving, not about success—and it’s about exploration, not about roadmaps and destinations. These may be important, but following the path and reaching predetermined goals are far from the whole of it.

Good teachers, unheralded, know this.

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