Before a doctor touches a patient, she must first complete years of medical training, learning every detail about how to practice medicine. Before a lawyer accepts his first client, he must finish years of law school, learning every detail about his trade. We know what makes a good doctor or a good lawyer, and we take what we know and use it to prepare the next generation of doctors and lawyers before their first day on the job.
We do not treat teachers the same way. Teachers have to learn a little about their content (although not enough, in my opinion), they have to learn a few abstract lessons on educational theory, pluralistic theory, special education issues, how technology could be used in the classroom, and only a little bit more. After these classes are complete, they spend time with a mentor teacher, who may be amazing, but also may not be. After this, they are thrown into their first year in the classroom with very little help.
To make it even worse, we currently live in a culture that is obsessed with holding teachers accountable. The current legislative attitude is that teachers who can make their students do well on a standardized test deserve a raise while teachers who cannot get their students to do well on a standardized test should be fired.
This is very difficult on a first year teacher who has never really been taught to teach, but has been thrown into a classroom with very little assistance and been told that if he cannot get students to a certain level, he will be punished, if not fired. In other words, he has to learn a difficult and complex craft within a few weeks or face the consequences.
With the consequences so high, why don’t we do a better job teaching teachers how to teach? The answer seems to be pretty simple: We do not know what a good teacher is. We know that a good teacher is one who gets results. We know that a good teacher is one who is able to not only communicate a lesson to students, but get them to learn it and be able to apply it to their own lives. We know that a good teacher is able to keep a room full of 30 children under control and interested in learning something new. We know that a good teacher inspires her students. We know all of the goals we want a good teacher to accomplish. The problem is that there is no clear answer to how all of this is accomplished. Since we do not have answers, we just throw teachers in there with the idea that they will sink or swim and if they sink, we will punish them for not trying hard enough to be a good teacher.
How did we get to this point? In Building A Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach it to Everyone), Elizabeth Green traces the history of ideas concerning what makes an effective teacher and what should be done to help every teacher succeed. She begins by looking at behaviorist researchers of the early 20th century who monitored effective teachers by counting how many steps they made during a lecture, watching their gestures, and listening to changes in voice tone, hoping to figure out the magic formula to encouraging children to learn. She ends her history with current bipartisan theories of standardized testing and teacher accountability proposals. In between, she touches numerous other theories and projects, many of which have worked and many that have not worked.
Like myself, Green is a supporter of putting more focus on training great teachers and less focus on holding teachers accountable. She pushes the idea that teachers should work together, once they are in the classroom, sitting in each other’s classes, critiquing each other’s lessons, sharing ideas, and helping each other improve. She points out that, compared to other nations, American schools have far more interruptions with everything from announcements to attendance clerks interrupting lessons on a daily basis. Throughout her book, she emphasizes new ideas that could work, while also calling for more research, and more implement of that research in order to make teachers and schools better.
Serving mostly as a history of ideas, there is not a lot of new material here, but it is a great survey of the history of educational reform in America, as well as a few other nations. I believe teachers, especially discouraged first and second year teachers, would find this book rewarding. It wouldn’t hurt for parents to read this book and see what goes into making a good teacher (The Introduction to the book gives an amazing view of what goes through a good teacher’s mind while class is in session). This should also be required reading for the legislators and policy analysts who will continue the thread of history discussed in this book over the next few decades. Hopefully understanding where teaching has come from will lead us to a better future where we can further solve this question and create a better public school system in the process.