Some 20-plus years ago, I was chatting with the then-current California Teacher of the Year, and he told me this story, one I’ve never forgotten: After he was named the Golden State’s most outstanding teacher, he decided to thank the teacher who had been most instrumental in his decision to go into teaching.
He’d been a lackluster student in high school, spending time, when he was supposed to be in class, smoking pot and riding his motorcycle. He had no plans for college or a distinguished, challenging career—he was mostly hoping to stay out of the military. One English teacher, however, saw something in his writing and his thinking, and told him he had the capacity to make a living that way, if he went to college.
It took a few years, but eventually, he did, leading to a career—obviously successful—in the classroom. After receiving the award, he looked up his old (in both senses of the word) teacher, now in residence at an assisted living facility. She received him graciously, and was thrilled that one of her former students was now the California Teacher of the Year.
But—she didn’t remember him.
She was still mentally sharp, and articulate. But she could not remember teaching him. His name was not familiar, nor was his face. She apologized—she’d had thousands of students, over a long career. But she couldn’t recall instructing him, let alone making the remark that changed his life.
In many ways, this is the perfect story.
It’s a brilliant illustration of how teachers’ influence can be deep, long-lasting, and utterly unpredictable. It’s also a cautionary tale for anyone who thinks that the ideal teacher can be carefully selected, through the use of standardized testing data, excellent grades, or personal references.
Where do good teachers come from? How do we pick promising candidates out of the crowd? What is the secret to putting the right people in the classroom?
We could start by treating teachers as vital cogs in our national health and well-being. This would mean paying them well, ensuring their safety and support in our classrooms, encouraging long-term careers, and rewarding accrued experience. We were headed in that direction decades ago, when the California Teacher of the Year and I began our teaching careers. Not so any more.
Still—there’s something to the idea that teachers are motivated to pursue excellence in the classroom by who they are, the diverse life experiences, beliefs, and inherent character traits they bring to the table. A teacher who can’t identify a talent for writing in a boy who skips class or appears to be wasting his life isn’t “effective.” A teacher whose distaste for certain students prevents her from telling them they have that talent is morally deficient.
You can’t test for courage, imagination, humor, patience, and the thousand other essentials that make teachers outstanding. There is no scientific measure of commitment and persistence. And the assertion that our current teaching crop comes from the lowest levels of human potential is both false and insidious.
Here’s what Pasi Sahlberg had to say, a couple of years ago, when reform-y types were urging a reboot of teaching to include only the highest academic achievers, provided with minimal training:
The idea that Finland recruits the academically "best and brightest" to become teachers is a myth. In fact, the student cohort represents a diverse range of academic success, and deliberately so. A quarter of the accepted students came from the top 20 percent in academic ability and another quarter came from the bottom half. This means that half of the first-year students came from the 51- to 80-point range of measured academic ability. You could call them academically average. Teaching potential is hidden more evenly across the range of different people. Young athletes, musicians and youth leaders, for example, often have the emerging characteristics of great teachers without having the best academic record. What Finland shows is that rather than get "best and the brightest" into teaching, it is better to design initial teacher education in a way that will get the best from young people who have natural passion to teach for life.
It’s interesting to me that Sahlberg suggests teaching potential is “hidden” and its qualities “emerge,” in likely candidates. I am convinced that teachers are both born and made.
You cannot know what it’s like to be a teacher—the daily grind, the magic moments, the crushing workload, and the light-bulb inspirations—until you spend a couple of years in your own classroom. Even the most talented, natural teacher has to work at it, and work hard, through discouragement and fatigue. And some academic superstars are missing the capacity to accept and, indeed, believe in those whose abilities are also hidden.
As our teaching pool is now dangerously diminished, maybe we should widen our perspectives on just who should be standing in front of our children.
The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.