I urge all educators to pick up a copy of the Jan./Feb. The Atlantic to read Amanda Ripley’s article “What Makes a Great Teacher?”
I ran into a former student on campus the other day, and my immediate thought was to tell her “Oh, you should be in my literature class now!” She was a wonderful, motivated student who contributed to class and produced strong work. She passed the class long ago and expressed that she got a lot out of it. Why would I want her to experience the same class again? I’ve changed, the class has changed, and for the better. Nothing was necessarily wrong before, but I could feel some clumsiness, some stops and starts, some instances of wasted energy (at times by me, at times by my students), and I could see some students not exercising their full potential.
Glancing at my syllabi, changes aren’t immediately clear, but I’ve made many incremental changes along the way about how I run my classroom. I’ve executed, assessed, and adapted, repeatedly. I’m not running around searching for new things to teach students, I’m figuring out how to teach them the same material better. The material of certain lessons/lectures has expanded over the years–for example, I now have a great list of movies that capture the essence of the Southern Gothic–but, the basics will always be the same.
In the current issue of The Atlantic, Amanda Ripley explores this topic in her article “What Makes a Great Teacher?” Instructors can present the same material and have the same goals for their students. But, in the college classroom, why might I receive blank stares from one group of students and several voices chiming in from another group of students when I pose the same exact question? Minor factors might include the fact that one class is at eight in the morning and another class is at noon. The more important factors to consider are 1) Do they have an answer to my question? 2) Do they care to answer the question? and 3) How do I get them to that place of care?
Ripley explores why two grade school teachers at the same school, both beginning with the majority of their students testing below grade level, end up with disparate results: Mr. Taylor ends with 90 percent of his students at or above grade level and Unnamed Teacher ends up with only 44 percent of her students at grade level with none above (far worse than her group began).
Ripley’s exploration is a good one, because she acknowledges the complexity of the question, the inherent difficulty in articulating what works. We can see failures in large templates placed on educational systems (no child left behind?) which were designed to make things work. Many things do not work. We know this. But, how do we quantify, document, and then disseminate what does work?
The large amount of data and research collected by Teach for America provides the basis for Ripley’s discussion. Ripley finds an answer:
“At the end of the day,”says Timothy Daly at the New Teacher Project, “it’s the mind-set that teachers need–a kind of relentless approach to the problem.”
I couldn’t agree more. We are never done working on this project of instruction. When we think of Professional Development we might get excited or our eyes might glaze over as we imagine a list of things we have to do to say we did. I can’t even imagine how long this list of things we have to do to say we did is for the average public school teacher.
How can we make a teacher have a “relentless approach to the problem”? Well, Teach for America tries to find the individuals that are like that naturally, naturally relentless. Here are some of the indicators:
What did predict success, interestingly, was a history of perseverance–not just an attitude, but a track record. […] Angela Lee Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and her colleagues have actually quantified the value of perseverance. In a study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology in November 2009, they evaluated 390 Teach for America instructors before and after a year of teaching. Those who initially scored high for “grit”–defined as perseverance and passion for long-term goals, and measured using a multiple choice test–were 31 percent more likely than their less gritty peers to spur academic growth in their students. Gritty people, the theory goes, work harder and stay committed to their goals longer.
Let’s allow our teachers persevere and relentlessly approach their complex problems as they see fit; many hope Race to the Top will give a framework for identifying and rewarding the gritty teachers. And for those of us that teach, let’s take time to reflect on our relentlessness, our grit.