Date: Oct 1, 2013 6:38 PM
Author: Jerry P. Becker
Subject: What Are We Doing to Support Great Teachers?
From Education Week [American Education's Newspaper of Record],
Wednesday, September 25, 2013, Volume 33, Issue 5, p. 27. See
What Are We Doing to Support Great Teachers?
By Mary Amato
You can tell that Mrs. Obstgarten is a great teacher when you step
into her classroom.
Walk in on the last day of school, a half-day when you'd expect kids
to be bouncing off the walls, and you see every kid bright-eyed,
eager to play a math game. Yes. On the last day. She is the kind of
teacher that every parent wants, that every kid will remember. She is
calm. She is in control. She is curious. She has this light in her
eyes, this eagerness to learn, nothing you can measure or package,
but there it is radiating from her, igniting the curiosity and
creativity of her students.
In the past 12 years, as a children's book author, I have seen more
than 2,000 teachers at work. I have been in small and large, rural
and inner-city, public and private classrooms from tiny Dover, N.H.,
to sprawling Phoenix. Schools bring me in for classroom workshops and
all-school assemblies in which I share my passion and my process for
brainstorming, writing, and revising.
Through these visits, and because of my own background in education
and education reporting, I have learned to recognize a great teacher
like Mrs. Obstgarten-and it breaks my heart to think that this year
she'll be sitting in Common Core State Standards training sessions
along with thousands of other teachers across the country.
The common-core standards have been adopted by all but four states
and are coming to classrooms across the nation. Today, specialists
are developing new curricula and tests to meet those standards and
training teachers to use them. Our educational system will spend
time, effort, and money in the belief that implementing the common
standards will improve teaching and learning.
SIDEBAR: "A set of official common-core standards isn't necessary to
achieve a high-quality education; great teachers are."
"Putting a Price Tag on the Common Core," a recent report by the
Thomas B. Fordham Institute, estimates the total cost of
implementation between $3 billion and $12.1 billion, depending on
which approaches states use.
Yet, as someone who has visited hundreds of schools around the
country, here's the reality as I see it: New standards, tests, and
training won't necessarily deliver results. What guarantees great
teaching and learning is a great teacher.
Great teachers are out there: the Ms. Ray who rushes up to show me
the newspaper her 6th graders are writing, the Ms. Levenson who has
emailed me ahead of my visit to find out how she can prepare her 4th
graders, the Mr. Truman who sits in a student desk and raises his
hand during the Q-and-A because he has a burning question, the Mrs.
Winters who sent me stories her 2nd graders wrote immediately after
I'm buoyed by these amazing teachers, but I am also dismayed by how
many teachers are disengaged-no preparation before my visit, no light
in their eyes while I'm there, no follow-up after I'm gone. To a
disengaged teacher, I'm just a line on the day's calendar, and the
students know it. To an engaged teacher, I'm an opportunity. I say
this not to pat myself on the back; I say this because a great
teacher will use every opportunity he or she has.
If a butterfly were to fly into a classroom and alight on the
whiteboard, a Mrs. Obstgarten will gather her students to peer at the
proboscis, to observe the camouflage in the wings, to ask if anyone
knows how, in fact, a butterfly breathes, and to recommend research
to learn more (a butterfly breathes through spiracles, tiny openings
along the sides of its body!).
And if a living, breathing writer walks into the school, a Mrs.
Obstgarten will want to examine how this writer works. A Mrs.
Obstgarten will take notes and encourage students to ask the writer
questions. (Do you outline? Do you deal with writer's block? How many
revisions do you write? How do you make characters so real? How do
you handle criticism?)
To prepare students for my creative-writing workshop, Mrs. Obstgarten
and I worked together to simplify the countywide lesson plan that she
was supposed to use (it was unreasonably complicated) and to develop
a pre-writing exercise. She taught the exercise, I taught the
story-writing workshop, and then she followed up, allowing class time
for students to write and revise their stories and helping them use
the strategies I had demonstrated. The finished stories were among
the best I've ever read from this age group. This was great teaching
on her part.
By the way, I checked after the fact: Our one lesson met all five
common-core objectives for the narrative-writing section of the 4th
grade writing strand, and we did this before having the official
standards or training. What does this mean? It shows that master
teachers are already doing the right thing. My point is that a set of
official common-core standards isn't necessary to achieve a
high-quality education; great teachers are.
You can give a disengaged teacher a five-volume curriculum guide
written by the best educators in the world and you can still get a
dull lesson. You can give an engaged teacher a piece of scrap paper
with the word "bugs" on it, and you can get magic.
I believe that our schools should have well-articulated, high
standards for their students. But after more than a decade of
feet-on-the-ground observation, I am convinced that what we need even
more is a "Great Teacher Initiative." We need to attract the
brightest and best into the teaching profession and make sure that
teacher education programs at the college level are rigorous,
relevant, and passion-inducing. A report released in June by the
National Council on Teacher Quality concluded that a majority of
teacher education programs do not adequately prepare teachers with
either content knowledge or classroom-management skills. These are
Unless we address the issue of teacher quality, all the effort and
money going toward the common core will be wasted. And our Mrs.
Obstgartens, faced with more training, may burn out or move on to
private schools when they should be refueling.
How do we accomplish this? I don't know. I am not an expert in
education reform or teacher education. But my Great Teacher
Initiative would be founded on these ideas: Good teachers have good
content knowledge and classroom-management skills; great teachers
have all that, and they are also passionate and curious; if getting
and keeping great teachers were our highest priority, then getting
and keeping great standards would be a piece of cake.
Our goal should be to have not just one or two Mrs. Obstgartens in
every school, but to have a Mrs. Obstgarten in every classroom. We
should be able to walk in and see the light in the eyes of the
teacher and of the students. Even on the last day of school.
Mary Amato, a former teacher and education reporter, is the author of
11 books for children. Her young-adult novel Guitar Notes (Egmont
USA) was published in 2012. She is working on a new children's book
series and a young-adult novel, which Egmont USA plans to publish
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244