Professor Predicts Urban Teachers’ Success

By Daniel Gursky — April 01, 1992 7 min read

Martin Haberman has been telling anyone who would listen for more than 30 years that not all teaching is the same. Urban teaching is different, he says, and successful urban teachers exhibit a distinct mixture of skills and beliefs.

For almost as long, Mr. Haberman has been arguing that schools of education cannot prepare enough effective teachers for America’s city schools because faculty members themselves have virtually no urban teaching experience.

Considering his position as a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, Mr. Haberman’s solution to the nation’s chronic shortage of qualified urban teachers is rather unusual.

First of all, he would break what he calls education schools’ “cartel’’ on the preparation of teachers, and open the profession up to all college graduates. But that alone is not enough, because there is no guarantee that arts-and-sciences graduates will make better teachers.

That is where Mr. Haberman’s “urban-teacher selection interview’’ comes in. In three decades of using it to select candidates for various nontraditional teacher-preparation programs that emphasize practical, on-the-job training, Mr. Haberman claims that the interview has proved almost flawless at predicting would-be teachers’ professional potential in the classroom.

By interviewing hundreds of “star’’ teachers around the county, Mr. Haberman has come up with what he considers to be the central attributes of good urban teaching. And to get a better idea of what not to look for in a teacher, he has talked to many self-described “quitters’’ who have left the profession.

The result is an interview process that looks more like a doctoral candidate’s defense of a dissertation than a search for a teaching job.

“Typical interview questions don’t have any answers,’' Mr. Haberman complains. “For example, ‘When did you decide to become a teacher?’ That’s like asking someone what their favorite color is. What are you going to do about the answer and what does the answer mean?’'

And, he argues, if the interviewer loves children and wanted to be a teacher from the time she was a little girl, she will look for similar answers from teacher candidates.

“What you have are very stereotypical questions that reflect the background and experience and prejudice of the questioner,’' he says.

Looking for Persistence

In contrast, Mr. Haberman and his colleagues--the interview usually is conducted by two people--start by asking the candidate what she would do if one of her students was not doing his homework.

The interview subject might suggest talking to the student, for example. But the questioners do not just accept that answer and move on. They repeat the scenario, saying that the teacher’s suggestion worked for a short time, but the student has reverted to not doing his homework.

“So what do you do then?’' they ask. It is a relentless process in which the teaching candidate has to keep coming up with additional suggestions.

The point of the persistent questioning is to test just that--the person’s persistence in handling a tough problem.

Other questions in the 30-minute interview are just as pointed and just as impossible to study for.

Candidates are asked how they would deal with an authoritarian principal who wants them to discontinue an activity the children clearly love. They have to provide generalizations about teaching and apply them to themselves and other teachers. They are questioned about at-risk students, teacher burnout, and mistakes they might make in the classroom.

Perhaps the most unusual series of questions gets at a person’s personal orientation toward teaching.

“Is it possible to teach children you don’t love?’' the interviewer asks. And the converse, “Is it possible for children to learn from teachers they don’t love?’'

On each question or series of questions, Mr. Haberman has developed a continuum, with answers a star teacher would provide on one end and quitters’ responses on the other. If the respondent provides the answer of a quitter on any question, he or she fails the interview. Successful candidates tend to provide answers that fall somewhere along the spectrum.

Mr. Haberman says he is trying to discover a prospective teacher’s ideology and methods. “We get what a person thinks a teacher in a school serving poor kids is supposed to be doing and why, and also the behaviors they would engage in,’' he notes.

In his vision of a good urban teacher, what emerges is a persistent, flexible, intelligent, resourceful, energetic person willing to admit his or her own fallibility. (And no, Mr. Haberman is not looking for people who think they have to love all children and be loved by them in return.)

‘We Don’t Miss Stars’

After the interview, Mr. Haberman and the other interviewer classify the candidate as a “star,’' “high potential,’' “average potential,’' or “no potential.’'

“We don’t miss ‘no’s’ and we don’t miss ‘stars,’'' he asserts. Some teachers that he predicted would be great turn out to be merely good, and vice versa, but all the teachers he picks turn out to be successful in the classroom, he adds.

Mr. Haberman is currently interviewing Milwaukee paraprofessionals for a program that will train them to become elementary- or middle-school teachers for the city’s public schools.

All three paraprofessionals interviewed this day express some surprise after they leave the room. “I expected the interview to focus a little bit more on me,’' Robert Tilden says. “But I guess that’s what they’re getting at by nailing you with difficult questions and seeing what you come up with.’'

Mr. Tilden, who graduated from college almost 20 years ago with a degree in mechanical engineering, typifies the sort of older candidates with diverse experiences attracted to Mr. Haberman’s training programs over the years. Since college, Mr. Tilden has worked as an industrial designer and hotel manager, and served two years as a missionary in Argentina.

Joel Koeper, another paraprofessional trying to get into the program, calls the process “a good technique’’ for selecting teachers.

“Usually in an interview, you answer a question and they leave it alone, and you’re pretty much finished,’' he says. “They were trying to dig a little bit deeper and see if there’s anything there.’'

After going through Mr. Haberman’s interview as part of another recent program, Carolyn Ealy is a big fan of the process. “The beautiful part about this interview is that it knows no race, color, creed, or age,’' says Ms. Ealy, a math and science teacher at Milwaukee’s Thomas Edison Middle School.

In interviews for other jobs with the city’s school system, she found she could fudge her answers, says Ms. Ealy, who now helps Mr. Haberman conduct some interviews. “This really gets to the heart’’ of what urban teachers do, she says.

Plenty of Minority Teachers

Mr. Haberman estimates that about two-thirds of the paraprofessionals he selects for the current program will be minorities. This, he says, proves that plenty of qualified minority candidates want to become teachers.

“We can find all the good minority teachers we want, provided we don’t look in undergraduate schools of education,’' Mr. Haberman says. “In undergraduate schools of education, we’re going to find less than 5 percent of the students are minorities, and they’re going to be less bright than the minorities in the other schools and colleges.’'

Milwaukee does not use the term “alternative certification’'--the paraprofessionals are applying for the Metropolitan Multicultural Teacher-Education Program--but the similarities are unmistakable. Mr. Haberman has trained administrators of other alternative-route programs--most notably in Texas--to use his interview, and he has recently been working with the Chicago Teachers’ Union because teachers and principals there now have the authority to select teachers for their own schools.

Despite his claims of success, however, people are not exactly scrambling to get their hands on the interview form.

Part of the problem, Mr. Haberman maintains, is that many urban systems do not want to screen out any potential teachers.

“They want anybody who shows up,’' he says. “There are a lot of cities that would like to use this, but they can’t because they need enough day-to-day subs.’'

And Mr. Haberman acknowledges that some people do not believe the interview works as well as he says it does. Part of that skepticism may be a product of his blunt criticism of the education establishment, which does not endear Mr. Haberman to some of his colleagues.

Some teacher educators, in particular, have said the interview eliminates candidates who could develop into good teachers, even if they fail to show that during the interview.

Other critics have said that good teaching is a personal, subjective matter that cannot be distilled into essential elements and tested in a half-hour interview.

“I can’t describe 100 percent of what good teachers do,’' Mr. Haberman responds. “But I can describe 60 percent, and I’m happy with that.’'

The fact that he does not charge people to use his interview process also makes it suspect to some, he says.

“It’s very hard for people to believe it’s a quality product if they get it for nothing,’' Mr. Haberman says. “I would like to make a lot of money, but I just don’t know how.’'

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1992 edition of Education Week as Professor Predicts Urban Teachers’ Success