Thursday, January 12, 2012

Where every teacher is above average

Teaching (as in, elementary-though-high-school), like any other profession, has pros and cons. Summers off! Low pay. A chance to shape the minds of the next generation! Grading. Not having to sit in a stuffy office all day! Not getting paid to surf the Internet like your friends with office jobs. And so on.

But the aspect of being a teacher of younger kids that strikes me as the most frustrating is the (understandable!) vilification of the Mediocre Teacher. Not merely the teacher who's a child molester, a drug dealer, or otherwise unfit to work with children. Not even the teacher who comes in late and unprepared. The teacher who fails to inspire, who just... teaches, but does not create that magical, Dead Poets Society spark. The teacher who's mocked a bit during the semester, then promptly forgotten. (I'm thinking of a high school science teacher I had who'd been assigned to a branch of science she knew nothing about, who lectured and graded just fine, but who answered every question that went at all beyond the material telling you she'd check after class, and I think we're still waiting.) Often, what "bad" means isn't spelled out, but it's clear enough that what's meant isn't restricted to situations in which children are in any kind of danger.

With the possible exception of open-heart surgeons, in no other profession is someone who does the job just OK viewed as not merely mediocre, but evil. Think of the children! (Thus why this phenomenon doesn't really impact college profs/adjuncts/TAs. In some situations, too much interest in teaching is stigmatized, but in none is so-so teaching viewed as a near-criminal offense.) No one wants to be bad at what they do, and everyone should strive to do the best they can in their field. But the idea of being in a field in which the stakes are so high, in which if you fail to be among the best, you are the very definition of a social problem, where the reward for being one of the good ones is not much financially, the stigma attached to being not that great immense... not so appealing.

Because of teachers' unions, it's generally assumed that teachers are if anything excessively accounted for as workers, and that the right thing to do is to overshoot the mark in the opposite direction, and to think of them not as human beings with jobs, but as out-of-the-goodness-of-their-heart born nurturers (is this gendered, you ask? you bet!) who, if they really cared, would always give 110%. If poor performance doesn't - as it does in other fields, including all but tenured higher-ed teaching - mean risking getting fired, it ought to at least mean being the recipient of a unanimous, indignant tsk-tsk from society.

Everyone wants all kids to have the best teachers, but teaching is, like any other profession, going to have a range of performance. Fire the worst 5% of teachers, waiters, or accountants, and there will be a new worst 5%. As the graduate of a public high school (and Stuyvesant may be special in other ways, but teachers were placed there, we were led to believe, according to seniority, not how likely Robin Williams was to play them in the biopic), I'm sympathetic to the idea of making it easier to fire the truly inept.

And I don't know enough about this issue to begin to guess what could improve teaching - more pay? less job security? new pedagogical approaches? - only that whatever reforms take place, there will still be some teachers worse than other teachers, and unless at the end of every school-year, the lowest-performing half get the boot, but even then, there will always be some classes taught by teachers who are not, by definition, better than average. And I'm not sure the think-of-the-children approach to the mediocre-teacher question is making the profession more appealing to more potential entrants. Given that one obvious way to up the average teacher performance would be to make the field more competitive to enter, that's worth taking into account.

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