What Is Important in Teaching?

The New York Times recently printed an article discussing the single most important contributing factor in students’ success at learning. After years of fruitless research, some advanced centers of teacher education have discovered that it depends on which teachers they have.

The shock of this report is that there could have been any doubt about the finding or delay in recognizing it. People outside the Ed Biz will wonder what other influence could possibly be so important. I should say the American Ed Biz: another article The Times published some years ago was on to the secret. Finnish schools, the world’s best, started their students at seven years old, spent $5,000 per pupil, had classes of thirty, and did without “gifted” programs. Asked how they do it, a teacher replied, “The teacher is no. 1.”

So the teacher is. We know it when we look into the past, admiring the teaching of Socrates rather than regretting the lost secrets of Platonic curriculum mapping. And how could we have forgotten it in our own school days? We remember that exquisite geometry class with Mrs. Lee or speech with Mr. Barlow. We remember our time in college, when we told each other not that “I’m taking ‘modern poetry,’” “I’m taking ‘Jane Austen,’” “I’m taking ‘recent European history,’” or “I’m taking ‘American history,’” but that “I’m taking Koch,” “I’m taking Trilling,” “I’m taking Stern,” or “I’m taking Hofstadter,” How could educationists have come to forget those people and the influence they had on us?

Part of the explanation may lie in a view of teaching that Richard Hofstadter found prevalent in the U. S. till fairly recently. He said that teachers were widely viewed as “drifters and misfits.” This belief created its own widespread reality, particularly as teachers tended to be so poorly paid that often only the extremely dedicated or those under perpetual vows of poverty—and drifters and misfits—would take the jobs.

The pay problem has been nudged in the right direction since the 1960’s, though there is a way to go before American teachers reach levels of pay achieved by Finnish teachers, who earn 60% of what Finnish doctors make. The image problem is still a problem. I told some students of mine about a former colleague who got a perfect SAT score when he was in high school. One student asked, “If he’s so smart, why is he a teacher?” Teachers of such students might well ask themselves that question.

What do excellent teachers do? The teacher education program I enrolled in didn’t know and never said, so I still had a lot to learn as I faced my first classes on my first day of teaching. How did I learn it? I heard the names students mentioned as the best teachers, and I spent a lot of my free periods in their classrooms watching them.

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, teacher educationists were saying that nothing the teacher says or does in class makes much difference in how students learn. It would be nice to think that they are finally revising that view.

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