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Topic: [ncsm-members] How long one teacher took to become great?
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
[ncsm-members] How long one teacher took to become great?
Posted: Oct 20, 2012 8:11 PM
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From The Answer Sheet [Valerie Stauss] / TheWashington Post,
Thursday, October 12, 2012. See

How long one teacher took to become great?

In today's education world, young college graduates accepted by Teach
For America get five weeks of summer training and are considered by
some to be "highly qualified teachers." Here's a different sort of
story, from veteran educator Marion Brady, who explains how long it
took him to become a good teacher.

By Marion Brady

A few weeks ago I flew into Buffalo, New York, rented a car, and
drove down to northeastern Ohio for a high school class reunion - the
55th - for students I'd taught when they were 9th graders in 1952.

They told me stories about myself, some of which I wish they'd kept
to themselves, but what they had to say got me thinking about the
teacher I once was.

I have a lousy memory, but it's good enough to tell me that,
notwithstanding assurances that I was their favorite teacher (what
else could they say?), I hadn't really been a good one.

I certainly wasn't a good teacher in 1952. No first-year teacher is
a good teacher.

I wasn't a good teacher in 1958 either. Some people thought I was;
they had spoken sufficiently highly of me to prompt a superintendent
from a distant, upscale school district to come and spend an entire
day in my classes, then offer me a considerable raise if I'd come and
teach in his district.

I did. But I can clearly recall leaning against the wall outside my
room during a class change and saying to Bill Donelly, the teacher
from the room next door, "There has to be more to it than this."

The "this" was what I was doing - following the standard practice of
assigning textbook reading as homework, then, next day, telling kids
my version of what the textbook had covered. Pop quizzes and exams
told me how much they remembered. (According to reunion attendees,
not much.)

I still wasn't a good teacher in 1963, but some people thought I was.
I'd again been recruited, this time to teach in the "demonstration"
school on the campus of a big state university.

Maybe I'm a slow learner, but I didn't start to feel good about what
I was doing until about 1970. What helped make that happen were a
few, almost casual, words.

Once again, I'd been recruited, this time by a textbook publisher.
They'd contracted with a husband and wife team to produce a series of
textbooks, and the team had run out of steam about halfway through
the project. The publisher hoped to salvage the series, thought I
could do it, and offered to pick up my salary if I'd take a leave of
absence and work on it.

I hedged. I wasn't sure I could deliver, so we agreed that, with my
brother's help, I'd produce something. If they liked it, and an
independent panel of their choosing liked it, then we'd talk about a

Three months later we submitted our stuff. It was good enough. But
someone on the outsider review panel wrote a comment that pushed me
around a corner. Permanently.

Referring to a particular activity, he or she said the student was
being asked merely to, "Guess what's on my mind."

I think the main reason I was recruited to ever-better positions was
the degree to which I fit the "good teacher" stereotype. I looked and
acted the part. I could hold a class's attention. I liked kids. I had
useful, non-school, "real world" experience. The only things I'd
really enjoyed when I was in high school were the extra-curricular
activities, so the kids and I had in common the feeling that much of
what we were doing was something to be endured.

I met most of the standard, "good teacher" criteria well enough, but
I eventually concluded that when I played that role there wasn't much
real learning going on. Whoever tossed off that short comment almost
20 years into my teaching career had put a finger on my problem: What
was in my head wasn't important. What mattered was what was going on
in kids' heads.

I changed. In fact, I changed so much that if I were still teaching
in a high school of the sort most policymakers seem to think is good
and an evaluator came in with a checklist to evaluate me, I'd
probably soon be looking for other work.

I moved my desk to the back of the room and shoved it into a corner,
with no room to get behind it. I traded student desks for easily
moved tables and chairs. I stopped using textbooks. I told the
principal my classes might be meeting elsewhere than in my room. I
protested administrative insistence on lessons plans for the week
ahead, arguing that I couldn't know what to do on Thursday until I
saw what had happened (or not happened) on Wednesday. I gave a
one-question test at the beginning of the year, and asked the same
question at the end of the year.

But the single biggest change: I shut up and sat down, which is where
today's evaluator would be most likely to find me. I came to believe
that my most successful classes were those in which I felt no need to
talk at all. I gave tough assignments - tough not because they
required a lot of work but because they required a lot of thought, no
less from me than from the kids. And because I felt I needed to know
about the quality of that thought, I put them in small conversational
groups where they were comfortable "thinking out loud." I either just
listened, or became just another group member. The really good days
were those when the groups challenged each other's thinking, and I
just sat and watched them have at it.

The work hung together and built toward an aim everyone clearly
understood. In journal articles I wrote at the time, I often summed
it up with some version of this:

"Each of us has acquired from our society a conceptual model of
reality. The most important task of a general education is to help us
understand that model, the models of those with whom we interact, and
the range of alternative models from which we might choose."

That, I believed and believe, is true "basic education."

In the 1960s, in high contrast to today's top-down mandates, federal
education policy encouraged educators to think and dream. And they
did, coming up with some wonderful ideas that quickly found their way
into classrooms.

And bombed. Looking back, the reason was clear - failure to heed the
biblical warning about putting new wine into old wineskins. For
example, the university at which I was teaching at the time developed
kits of hands-on materials that helped kids figure out for themselves
certain principles of physics. They peddled them to commercial
manufacturers of educational materials, who packaged them
beautifully, wrote glowing (and true) sales pitches about what kids
could learn from playing with the equipment, and sold them.

Most of the materials ended up on shelves in schools across the
country. Some of them are probably still there under layers of dust,
artifacts of a genuine revolution that never happened.

Because, when it comes to change, you can't do just one thing.
Switching from passive to active learning - which is what that 1960s
effort was all about - had, at the very least, implications for
classroom furniture, textbook use, length of class period, student
interaction, teacher understanding, learner-teacher relationships,
methods of evaluation, administrator attitudes, parental and public
expectations, bureaucratic forms and procedures.

Those didn't change, so the new teaching materials, not being "system
friendly," were rejected. Worse, when system inertia caused the new
materials to fail, there was a "back to basics" swing of the
pendulum, and the seeds of today's simplistic reading and math grind
were sown.

Some random questions prompted by reminiscing: Why won't the teacher
effectiveness fad meet the same fate-change nothing because it tries
to change just one thing? Might that not explain the supposed failure
of the Gates Foundation "small schools" initiative? Is the present
fixation on teacher characteristics reinforcing teacher-centered
education rather than student-centered education? Are "effective"
teacher qualities the same from kindergarten through 12th grade? Are
the walls being erected by present reform efforts so high that real
improvement is even farther out of reach?

And what explains the fascination with and faith in data and
quantification that's driving education "reform" in America, the
United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand? The Gates Foundation is
spending $45 million on a project titled Measures of Effective
Teaching (MET). MEASURES of Effective Teaching! Is there something in
our shared cultural heritage that causes us to think that everything
can be measured and a useful number attached to it?

The new big thing in reform circles is that every education-related
decision must be data driven. Why do we resist the fact that, more
often than not, the inherent complexity of quality makes it
impossible to quantify it? Is resistance to that fact a crippling
cultural trait?
PHOTO SIDEBAR: (Jahi Chikwendiu-The Washington Post)
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

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