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The myth of the 'excellent teacher'

Robert Niles
Published: March 7, 2013 at 5:12 PM (MST)
Sure, I've had several teachers over my life whom I considered excellent. But just because a specific teacher was excellent for me doesn't guarantee that same teacher was excellent for every other student he or she taught.

Apple for the teacher?I remember one high school teacher who drove me and a handful of other students to improve our writing, and her lessons remain inspiring and instructive to me, even today. But many other students couldn't stand her abrasive style, refused to work and failed to develop in her classes. Was she an excellent teacher?

My daughter has a great year with one of her elementary school teachers, exploring music, writing and science at a deeper level than she'd done before. But my son endured a very different experience with the same teacher three years later. For my son, this previously patient, wonderful teacher was almost bullying, and my son hated the class. Was that teacher excellent?

That different people have different experiences with the same teacher shouldn't surprise anyone. Education is a deeply personal experience. A teacher can put forth all the lessons he or she can deliver, but education doesn't happen until a student learns. And when that happens depends as much on what ability, motivation and context the student brings to the class as what a teacher offers there.

This is why poverty has such a devastating effect upon student performance. If a student is fortunate enough to enjoy a wonderful relationship with a specific teacher, learning flows. But when that doesn't happen, a student with well-educated and resourceful parents can count on them to fill the gap. Those parents can step up to help explain lessons, assist with homework or hire tutors to help their child learn. (As I wrote above, two children with the same background, even from the same family, can have vastly different experiences with the same teacher. "Excellence," even when it does happen, is not a constant.) A child with poor, or absent, parents doesn't enjoy those resources. For them, the education happens in the classroom or it doesn't happen at all. If those students get lucky with a teacher who has the ability to connect with them as individuals, great. Otherwise, learning just doesn't happen in that class. Over time, a middle-class or wealthy student will continue to progress, regardless of their relationship with various teachers, while a poor student eventually will fall behind unless they hit the jackpot of being able to develop wonderful relationships with every teacher they get.

Which is really hard to do when states are cutting school budgets, increasing class sizes and leaving teachers with more and more poor students to try and develop instructive relationships with each year.

How, then, can anyone truthfully measure teaching "excellence"? More crucially, how can me measure teaching failure? Is it fair to label a teacher a "failure" when he or she is given a class of 30+ students with no home support and whose lack of access to proper nutrition, health care and even decent rest at night threatens their ability to learn? Even if a teacher in that situation managed to pull off the miracle of getting all those students to progress, it's folly to expect that they'll be able to progress at the same rate as a class filled with well-off kids with parents paying for good meals, quiet bedrooms, regular checkups and after-school enrichment programs.

And yet, we've got people like Michelle Rhee, writing books and showing up all over the TV, promoting the idea that if we can just turn education over to the "excellent" teachers and fire all those failing ones, America's schoolkids will live happily ever after.

If we really want to improve the quality of education for all American children, we're going to need a lot more teachers, not fewer. Only with more teachers can we increase the odds of students in a particular grade at a particular school system having available the teacher who's a good match for their needs, their temperament and their experience. Only by hiring more counselors and more administrators will we be able to do a better job of matching teachers with students and their communities, to improve the odds that education happens in the classroom, without relying on rich parents to pick up the slack.

We're not going to improve education by cutting support to all but a few arbitrarily designated "excellent" teachers. We're going to improve education in America only by spending enough to build and develop more instructive relationships between teachers and students, no matter their backgrounds and abilities. The more we focus on that, the more "excellent" teachers we will develop.

My wife often says that the key to education (she's a music teacher) is for an instructor to begin where the student is. You're not going to get far trying to work with an ideal of what you want a student to be, in lieu of working with the student you actually have.

It's the same for Americans and our education system. We might long for an ideal of cheap, easy schools where a few superteachers can ride in and save the day by teaching everyone the same way. But education doesn't work like that. Students aren't software programs or gears in a machine. They're people -- individuals with unique needs, dreams and abilities. They deserve the attention, care and instruction of a personal education experience. More than half of children attending California schools can't afford to buy or bring their own lunch. We've got to work with what we have, not what we wish to imagine our communities to be.

If we want to have and reward excellent teaching, we need to put students in position to have excellent relationships with them. Following the advice of those who wish to cut the number of teachers, increase class sizes, reduce support staff and leave teachers with less of a say in their work won't ever help that happen.

Update: If you care about public education, too, please take a moment and look at The Network for Public Education.

Robert Niles also can be found at

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