You can tell that Mrs. Obstgarten is a great teacher when you step into her classroom.
Walk in on the last day of school, a half-day when you’d expect kids to be bouncing off the walls, and you see every kid bright-eyed, eager to play a math game. Yes. On the last day. She is the kind of teacher that every parent wants, that every kid will remember. She is calm. She is in control. She is curious. She has this light in her eyes, this eagerness to learn, nothing you can measure or package, but there it is radiating from her, igniting the curiosity and creativity of her students.
In the past 12 years, as a children’s book author, I have seen more than 2,000 teachers at work. I have been in small and large, rural and inner-city, public and private classrooms from tiny Dover, N.H., to sprawling Phoenix. Schools bring me in for classroom workshops and all-school assemblies in which I share my passion and my process for brainstorming, writing, and revising.
Through these visits, and because of my own background in education and education reporting, I have learned to recognize a great teacher like Mrs. Obstgarten—and it breaks my heart to think that this year she’ll be sitting in Common Core State Standards training sessions along with thousands of other teachers across the country.
The common-core standards have been adopted by all but four states and are coming to classrooms across the nation. Today, specialists are developing new curricula and tests to meet those standards and training teachers to use them. Our educational system will spend time, effort, and money in the belief that implementing the common standards will improve teaching and learning.
A set of official common-core standards isn't necessary to achieve a high-quality education; great teachers are."
“Putting a Price Tag on the Common Core,” a recent report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, estimates the total cost of implementation between $3 billion and $12.1 billion, depending on which approaches states use.
Yet, as someone who has visited hundreds of schools around the country, here’s the reality as I see it: New standards, tests, and training won’t necessarily deliver results. What guarantees great teaching and learning is a great teacher.
Great teachers are out there: the Ms. Ray who rushes up to show me the newspaper her 6th graders are writing, the Ms. Levenson who has emailed me ahead of my visit to find out how she can prepare her 4th graders, the Mr. Truman who sits in a student desk and raises his hand during the Q-and-A because he has a burning question, the Mrs. Winters who sent me stories her 2nd graders wrote immediately after my presentation.
I’m buoyed by these amazing teachers, but I am also dismayed by how many teachers are disengaged—no preparation before my visit, no light in their eyes while I’m there, no follow-up after I’m gone. To a disengaged teacher, I’m just a line on the day’s calendar, and the students know it. To an engaged teacher, I’m an opportunity. I say this not to pat myself on the back; I say this because a great teacher will use every opportunity he or she has.
If a butterfly were to fly into a classroom and alight on the whiteboard, a Mrs. Obstgarten will gather her students to peer at the proboscis, to observe the camouflage in the wings, to ask if anyone knows how, in fact, a butterfly breathes, and to recommend research to learn more (a butterfly breathes through spiracles, tiny openings along the sides of its body!).
And if a living, breathing writer walks into the school, a Mrs. Obstgarten will want to examine how this writer works. A Mrs. Obstgarten will take notes and encourage students to ask the writer questions. (Do you outline? Do you deal with writer’s block? How many revisions do you write? How do you make characters so real? How do you handle criticism?)
To prepare students for my creative-writing workshop, Mrs. Obstgarten and I worked together to simplify the countywide lesson plan that she was supposed to use (it was unreasonably complicated) and to develop a pre-writing exercise. She taught the exercise, I taught the story-writing workshop, and then she followed up, allowing class time for students to write and revise their stories and helping them use the strategies I had demonstrated. The finished stories were among the best I’ve ever read from this age group. This was great teaching on her part.
By the way, I checked after the fact: Our one lesson met all five common-core objectives for the narrative-writing section of the 4th grade writing strand, and we did this before having the official standards or training. What does this mean? It shows that master teachers are already doing the right thing. My point is that a set of official common-core standards isn’t necessary to achieve a high-quality education; great teachers are.
You can give a disengaged teacher a five-volume curriculum guide written by the best educators in the world and you can still get a dull lesson. You can give an engaged teacher a piece of scrap paper with the word “bugs” on it, and you can get magic.
I believe that our schools should have well-articulated, high standards for their students. But after more than a decade of feet-on-the-ground observation, I am convinced that what we need even more is a “Great Teacher Initiative.” We need to attract the brightest and best into the teaching profession and make sure that teacher education programs at the college level are rigorous, relevant, and passion-inducing. A report released in June by the National Council on Teacher Quality concluded that a majority of teacher education programs do not adequately prepare teachers with either content knowledge or classroom-management skills. These are basic necessities.
Unless we address the issue of teacher quality, all the effort and money going toward the common core will be wasted. And our Mrs. Obstgartens, faced with more training, may burn out or move on to private schools when they should be refueling.
How do we accomplish this? I don’t know. I am not an expert in education reform or teacher education. But my Great Teacher Initiative would be founded on these ideas: Good teachers have good content knowledge and classroom-management skills; great teachers have all that, and they are also passionate and curious; if getting and keeping great teachers were our highest priority, then getting and keeping great standards would be a piece of cake.
Our goal should be to have not just one or two Mrs. Obstgartens in every school, but to have a Mrs. Obstgarten in every classroom. We should be able to walk in and see the light in the eyes of the teacher and of the students. Even on the last day of school.
A version of this article appeared in the September 25, 2013 edition of Education Week as What Are We Doing to Support Great Teachers?