Monday, April 07, 2014

What exactly is a good (or great) teacher? (Part 4: Good grades?)

This is part four of my series examining various criteria the public, teachers, administrators, government officials and others seem to mention when answer this question: What is a good teacher?

There's no universal standard by which to define a good, let alone great, teacher. There are no universally agreed upon measures rubrics or checklists. Can we simply say we know a good teacher when I see one? We can but shouldn't.

Today's topic is an identifying construct: University grades and scores on teacher training exams.

Are good teachers those with the best grades?

My wife and I have discussed the difference between what Chinese consider a good student and what I consider a good student. For her (Chinese, also a teacher), a good student is one with good grades, and the best student is the one with the best grades. For me, a good student will usually have good grades, but I look more at motivation, diligence, and those traits that lead to success, not the success itself.

I wonder if this is true for teachers, as well. Or perhaps any profession, for that matter.

A few weeks back I was looking into getting my teaching license in Texas. Regardless of my experience or my existing endorsements listed on my Iowa license, I was told that I would have to take a battery of exams: one for teaching in general, one for my mathematics endorsement, and one for my ESL endorsement. Eventually I found a job in Arkansas, so I've put the Texas licensure on hold.

It got me thinking, however.

Exams can be positive
In some ways, the exams are surely positive. Obviously, you'd want to ensure teachers know their subject areas. A math teacher should understand math. A biology teacher should understand biology. Also, especially in elementary education, you'd want to make sure teachers have all the basic skills of math, language, etc. needed to instruct students.

On the other hand...
A teacher may not be able to recite or even identify Maslow's hierarchy of needs, but is it needed to realize hungry children, sleep-deprived children, and children in unsafe home environments will have more difficulty in school? A teacher may not be incredibly familiar with Howard Gardener's multiple intelligence theory, but is such explicit knowledge necessary to a teacher experienced in looking for their students strengths and engaging them in those ways?

Does an ESL teacher have to remember Stephen Krashen and his input hypothesis, or is it enough to know that students need to get comprehensible input, even if that term is also unknown? Does an ESL teacher have to know the term scaffolding if they've been doing it since before the term hit the mainstream? An ESL teacher may not know the term recasting, but he or she may recast successfully 50 times a day.

Back to the initial question
For those who pass these exams with the highest scores, does that imply that they are the most qualified candidates?

High school and university and graduate school: I was a good student; I worked hard, and I earned relatively high scores. At the same time, school came relatively easy to me. That's not to say that everything was easy; rather, it just never seemed like the struggle it was for some of my classmates. Does that mean I should be a better teacher? I don't think so.

Could teachers who struggled to learn be more aware of the difficulties students may have? Could the teachers who've had to work harder to develop learning strategies be better able to help students develop learning strategies? Could teachers who themselves needed more personal attention from their teachers be more willing to give personal attention to their own students? Does high performance in academic training neccessarily translate into effective teaching in the classroom?

Football players with great performances at the NFL combine don't always become great (or even good) NFL players. How many great NCAA basketball players have become NBA draft busts? Likewise, brilliant med students don't always make the best doctors or surgeons, and there have been plenty of business failures made by mediocre and great business students alike. I assume the same is true of teachers.

There are simply intangibles that refuse to be assessed by exams, but these intangibles can make or break a teacher. These intangibles separate teachers who are more and less effective. Perhaps these can be taught and learned, but tested? Not as of yet.

Other posts in the series:
Part 1: Inspiration?
Part 2: Test scores?

Follow me on Twitter @MatthewTShowman

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