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Teaching: Should I or Shouldn’t I Teach?

September 27, 2011

There is a new film coming out this week, The American Teacher.  The trailer for the film is available on You Tube.

The producer of the film, Ninive Calegari, wrote a blog article about the film on Education Nation (click here for the reference).  He explains how his interest in and experience with the teaching profession led him to write a book, Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers, along with Daniel Moulthrop and Dave Eggers.  The book depicts the lives of teachers that were interviewed and showcased with the hopes of illustrating for the reader the complex nature of the teaching profession.  After the book received a fair amount of exposure and interest, Mr. Calegari decided to produce a film that he hoped would get his message about the joys and tribulations of the teaching profession out to a broader audience.

People who have taught, understand that to be a teacher requires a great deal of dedication, perseverance, patience, passion, and love of children.  Jon Saphier writes in his book, The Skillful Teacher,

Teaching is one of the most complex human endeavors imaginable.

As the film trailer suggests, teachers have to make hundreds of decisions every day.  Teaching 70-150 students and wearing multiple hats requires that a teacher be quick on his or her feet when it comes to navigating classroom dynamics.  Good teachers are masters of the decision-making process.  They rarely make mistakes when it comes to helping children learn or guiding them through a school day.  When they do make a mistake, they are equally masterful at learning, adapting, and making mid-course corrections in their work.

In a recent blog post from the Center for Teaching (click here), I referenced a presentation by Eugenia Wattle at The Westminster Schools in which she talked about the importance of relationships.  Good teachers understand that it is their relationships with students that serve as the foundation for their work.

In the Spring of 2011, The Future of School Reform #4, a CFT blog post covering an Education Week series on school reform, dealt with the question: What will it take to build a workforce of teachers that are adequately prepared to carry the education torch into the 21st Century?  I referenced an article by Robert Arnove, Extraordinary Teachers Exceptional Students, in which he writes:

No matter how innately talented or practiced the student may be, the master teacher refines and polishes initial capabilities.

Arnove suggests that the relationship between a good teacher and a student is instrumental to successful learning.  His qualities of a good teacher are;

  • personalizing instruction
  • providing shortcuts
  • caring and loving
  • generosity of spirit
  • not creating clones
  • being self-critical
  • valuing a community of practice.

For me, these qualities focus attention on what the teacher needs to do.  If the teacher can embody these qualities, then his or her students will find success in learning.  I also like that these qualities imply a willingness to learn, to be open to possibilities, to share, and to be reflective in one’s work as a teacher.

From the National Center for Educational Statistics:

public school systems will employ about 3.2 million teachers this fall, resulting in a pupil/teacher ratio of 15.5. This ratio is lower than the 2000 ratio of 16.0. Close to 0.5 million teachers will be working in private schools this fall, resulting in an estimated pupil/teacher ratio of 12.9, which is also lower than the 2000 ratio of 14.5.

So there are nearly 4.0 million K-12 teachers in the United States working with our roughly 55 million students.  For this system to function well, and for our students to achieve equitably at all levels, we need to help all of our teachers exemplify the qualities Arnove writes about.  In addition, we must nurture the cycle that leads towards improved student outcomes or achievement.  At the Center for Teaching we are interested in promoting effective teaching through strong professional development programs that focus on teacher-teacher collaboration.  The goal being to help teachers work towards modeling Arnove’s qualities or the qualities diagrammed below (Figure 1).  While teacher effectiveness is only one aspect of what leads a student to be successful (Figure 2), it is certainly recognized as one of the most important.

Our profession needs good teachers because nearly 20% (~800,000) of the roughly 4.0 million teachers will retire within then next 5-7 years.  We have our work cut out for us if we do not want to fall further behind other countries in effectively educating the next generation.

Figure 1: Qualities for Effective Teaching

Figure 2: Factors effecting student achievement

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