What is a “good teacher”?

Here it is. I’ve been a public school teacher for 6 years- grades 1 and 5. I’ve also taught preschool, summer school, 5-8th grade Spanish, and subbed in K-12th grade classrooms. I am one person with one opinion, and here it is.

Are all my efforts (and the efforts of my colleagues) to be a “good teacher” really paying off? As a society-teachers and non-teachers alike- we almost unanimously believe it is not. I am attempting to raise awareness around two key societal concerns- the overwork and mistreatment of teachers and the apparent failure of public education despite the valiant attempts of education professionals to make improvements.

What is it really like to be an elementary school teacher?

As teachers, and elementary school teachers in particular, we are drowning in expectations, standards, and guidelines that attempt to approximate what our job is. This, for me, is the single most maddening aspect of my profession.

What is a “good teacher”? We know that we constantly feel like we’re missing the mark, but most of us seem to have no idea what that mark is. And how could we? Despite the teaching philosophies we wrote in college and the reasons we give for teaching at our job interviews, once you’re thrown into a classroom, your mission is instantly muddled. Every message we receive from an administrator, support staff member, parent, student, colleague, book, or professional development course seems to add to the confusion rather than clarify. “And also you need to do…And also you need to know…And also you need to be…”

Then of course there is “The Danielson Framework.” For those of you unfamiliar with this teacher evaluation criteria, let me give you a taste of how it defines our role and grades us. To my knowledge, modified versions are widely used by districts across the nation.

Charlotte Danielson, the author of Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching, breaks teaching into 4 “domains-” planning & preparation, classroom environment, instruction, and professional responsibilities.

Each domain is further divided into several “components.” For instance, the planning and preparation domain contains component 1.a: demonstrating knowledge of content and pedagogy; component 1.b: demonstrating knowledge of students; component 1c: setting instructional outcomes; component 1.d demonstrating knowledge of resources; component 1.e: designing coherent instruction; and component 1.f: designing student assessments.

Each component is divided further into elements. For instance, component 1.b- demonstrating knowledge of students, is divided into 5 elements: knowledge of child and adolescent development; knowledge of the learning process; knowledge of students’ skills, knowledge, and language proficiency; knowledge of students’ interests and cultural heritage; and knowledge of students’ special needs.

Finally, each element is represented on a rubric with 4 columns that represent your proficiency as an educator in regard to that element. Depending on how you perform, you are rated as unsatisfactory, basic, proficient, or distinguished. For most teachers, familiar with Danielson or not, these ideas are native. We live and breath these expectations whether we use the same language to describe them or not. However, members of the public seem to be mostly clueless about what exactly the work of a teacher consists of. The perception is that we babysit kids all day, teach a few things by talking to them and giving out worksheets, and do a bit of grading. Often they seem entirely unaware of the layers of understanding, thought, creative power, administrative and leadership skills required to run a classroom in today’s schools, and this is setting aside all of our work to nurture the whole child by prioritizing our relationships and social emotional well being. The mismatch between public perception of the classroom and the reality of a teacher’s work day is staggering to me. This is no one’s fault. How would you know? I don’t pretend to know what you do all day? But I also don’t try to make sweeping claims about what you do and how you do it. Unfortunately, many individuals who know little to nothing about the inner workings of public education have strong opinions about it nonetheless. And worse, try to make changes to public education founded on lack of understanding.

But I digress…According to Danielson, a “good teacher” (i.e. a teacher ranked as ‘distinguished’) is one who consistently demonstrates the description in the distinguished category for all 73 elements. Here is a sample from these descriptions: the teacher “displays extensive and subtle understanding of how students learn..of individual students’ skills, knowledge, and language proficiency.” The teacher designs and applies assessment that is “fully aligned with the instructional outcomes in both content and process…adapted for individual students.” The teacher “actively and systematically elicits diagnostic information from individual students regarding their understanding and monitors the progress of individual students…All students are cognitively engaged…students initiate and adapt activities…instructional groups are productive and fully appropriate…instructional materials and resources are suitable to the instructional purposes and engage students…students initiate the choice, adaption, or creation of materials to enhance their learning…the lesson’s structure is highly coherent…teacher’s questions are of uniformly high quality with adequate time for students to respond…students themselves ensure that all voices are heard in the discussion…teacher’s explanation of content is imaginative…teacher and students use physical resources easily and skillfully and students adjust the furniture to advance their learning…monitoring by teacher is subtle and preventative…Students monitor their own and their peers’ behavior, correcting one another respectfully…teacher response to misbehavior is highly effective and sensitive to students’ individual needs or student behavior is entirely appropriate. ”

Shall I continue? These are the standards that teachers are held to. This is what we are already doing, or trying desperately to do. Notice that our student’s decisions are a reflection of our own effectiveness. If a student engages in negative behavior, the teacher is instructed to consider what she should have done differently. If a student is not engaged, the teacher is asked what she can add to her instruction to be more engaging. And let me tell you, today’s lesson plans are works of art. This is not the talk and pass out a worksheet era. We make complicated charts with drawings and pictures, integrate technology and multiple disciplines, build models, put on shows, create songs… As we think about a lesson we have to consider where it fits within the unit and how it meets the standard, we have to utilize a range of instructional methods and strategies that model, engage students in practice, and allow them to demonstrate individual proficiency. We have to honor existing curriculum while trying to fill in gaps and make adjustments for individual student needs and learning styles. I have spent well over an hour planning for a 10 minute lesson to get it right, only to have some students not pay attention. Then, I’m left to my own my own self doubt. Clearly I wasn’t being a “good teacher”-a few of my 6 year olds were not paying attention.

If you think this is unique to me-think again. If you think these standards are unique to my district- think again. I have interacted with teachers across districts, working in two wildly different districts in two different states myself. One in which all schools were title schools (had significant numbers of students below the poverty line) and the other highly affluent. We are evaluated by the same Danielson rubric, and all work tirelessly to be “good teachers” so we can help the students we entered the profession for. Yet, every teacher I’ve ever interfaced with feels like less than a “good teacher”. You talk about lazy, incompetent teachers. Where are they? I’ve never met one. You talk about teachers who don’t care. Where are they? Again, I’ve never met one. Please, enlighten me. I have yet to encounter a colleague who isn’t riddled with self doubt and working long hours to be the very best for his/her students. Teachers are getting sick from the amount of effort they are pouring into students, but is it making a difference?

Teachers are overworked and mistreated, but despite their valiant attempts public education is “failing.” But what is it failing at?

I believe that both problems start with the same conversation-what is the point of public education? What is our goal? I am calling for a pause in the improvement making process. We are running in the dark-rapidly adding new mandates, agendas, processes, spending public funds furiously, trying to measure and quantify all of our work to make “better decisions.” But why? Why are we measuring what we’re measuring? Can we stop running for minute? Just long enough to figure out why we are running? Then we can move forward with a clear purpose and task. Then we can say with more confidence what an effective educator (a “good teacher) looks like. I have a hunch, being a teacher myself, that it is much simpler and humane than the work life most teachers are currently experiencing.

Be part of the conversation. What is the point of public education?

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