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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Is ‘Good Enough’ Teaching Good Enough?

By Deborah Netolicky — January 14, 2016 5 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Deborah Netolicky, an educator, school leader and researcher with 16 years of experience in teaching and school leadership roles in Australia and the UK. She currently resides in Australia.

Can you imagine a school prospectus describing the education it provides as ‘good enough’? Or a parent happily proclaiming that their child’s teacher is ‘good enough’? Professor Peter Gray’s recent piece for Psychology Today - ‘The Good Enough Parent is the Best Parent’ - suggests that the best parents are those who, rather than striving for perfection, do their best to understand and help their children. It had me wondering: could these ideas, as explained by Gray, apply to teaching? What if, in the global quest for teacher quality, we considered what ‘good enough’ teaching, rather than ‘good teaching’? What is good enough?

The quality of teaching, thanks to a body of research which links it to student learning, has become an ongoing global focus in the world of education. Teachers, schools and systems have been investigating what good teaching looks like and how teachers’ teaching might be improved. As an example of one school-based intervention, my own Australian school has implemented a coaching model for teacher growth intended on developing a common language of practice, a culture of growth and a shared understanding of good teaching. But, should we be striving for consistently outstanding teaching, or is ‘good enough’ good enough?

Below, I take Gray’s list and replace ‘parent’ with ‘teacher’ and ‘child’ with ‘student’ in order to think about these ideas from an educator’s perspective. I have treated these, not as a checklist of good teaching practice, but as a tool for contemplation.

Good enough teachers do not strive to be perfect and do not expect perfection from their students.
Many might agree that teachers should have high, but not perfect, expectations of their students. But what should be expected from teachers? Is it acceptable to release ourselves from the expectation of constant excellence, or should teachers should strive for perfect lessons and outstanding practice, in every lesson, every day?

Many schools and systems enact performative accountability measures which set an apparently observable and quantifiable bar for teaching, suggesting that it’s possible for a lesson to be outstanding, if not perfect. Schools benefit from analyzing a range of internal and external data, and thinking broadly about how they quantify success. As sociologist William Bruce Cameron wrote (although often attributed to Einstein):"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

We can strive to be excellent teachers while being flexible in our expectations of how a lesson might go or how a cohort might perform. It’s also possible for systems and schools to trust in the capacity of teachers to do a good job, and to strive to do a better job, without measures which create cultures of fear and compliance.

Good enough teachers respect their students and try to understand them for who they are.
Respect, trust and attempts at understanding are widely accepted as crucial for schools and classrooms. The core business of schooling is the care and education of each individual student. Central to this purpose is respecting our students and attempting to understand them, their contexts, their interests, who they are as people and their needs as learners. While the skillful enacting of pedagogy can propel learning, this must be done within a context of safety, trust, respect and acceptance of diversity and individuality.

Good enough teachers are more concerned for the student’s experience of school than with the student’s future as an adult.
Gray suggests that an emphasis on trust and support--and on providing an environment in which to play, explore, learn and have relationships--sets children up for satisfying futures. Trust is a foundation stone for learning, and many aspects of the learning environment can influence the learning that goes on. However, schools and teachers are also charged with helping students to understand the past, and preparing students for what is often described as an uncertain future. Is it enough to focus, as Gray suggests, on creating the conditions for a satisfying current experience? Or is this not ‘good enough’?

Good enough teachers provide the help that their students need and want, but not more than they need or want.
I have written before about allowing students freedoms in order to develop their ethics and sense of responsibility, and the importance of discomfort for learning. Gray describes how allowing children to make mistakes and fail allows learning to happen. Help, he says, supplements and supports the child’s own efforts rather than taking over the task.

I was reminded of my experience, as a university student, teaching art to youth with cerebral palsy. When I arrived for my first session as a voluntary art teacher, I discovered that the art lessons consisted of the teacher going to each student and asking them how they wanted the artwork or craft project made. The teacher would then complete the student’s artwork and move to the next waiting student. After that initial lesson, I went home and thought about how I might be able to provide supports so that these children could create their own art. By the next lesson, I had made some implements for applying paint. In the lesson, I found ways for students to use these, and their hands, on paper which was positioned for the best opportunity of contact. The looks on those faces as they painted were ones I have never forgotten: wonder, joy, pride. This was about empowering students with enough support to create and succeed; developing efficacy, agency and autonomy.

The primary tools of good enough teaching are conscious reflection, maturity, and empathy.
Gray’s comment that good enough parents don’t blindly follow advice of experts is salient in a time when there are many competing voices in the education sector. Teachers need to be savvy consumers of information about teaching, able to question the quality of sources, data and evidence.

While the realm of ‘the primary tools of good enough teaching’ is diverse and contested, many would agree that being highly reflective, mature and empathetic are important for teaching. For me, with my academic and school focus on professional learning, of the above list, ‘conscious reflection’ is salient; teachers should approach their practice with reflexivity and a desire to best serve the needs of their students.

Good enough teachers are confident that their good enough teaching is good enough.
This last point has me wondering: should systems, schools, educational leaders and teachers be ever-striving for the holy grails of classroom practice, school leadership and school culture? In a time when there are more pressures than ever on schools and teachers, is ‘good enough’ teaching good enough?

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.