A month ago, a post I wrote on different kinds of secondary school students in classes I and colleagues have taught stirred an exchange between a number of readers. Mike Goldstein suggested I post the back-and-forth between Michael Merry, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam (Netherlands), and me. Here it is. I also appended Mike Goldstein’s comment since he offers his views of charter school teachers who wrestle with different roles to play in teaching compliant but disengaged students.
I think this is a fairly accurate description of three different student “types” and I recognize them from my own experience. And while I won’t pretend to have observed nearly as many classrooms as you, Larry, I’ve observed well above the average, having spent several years training student teachers and observing/critiquing their practices, but also (of course) having attended years of school myself (with more than my share of dull teachers), and finally, watching the experiences of my three kids in school, one of whom has now graduated. And while it is never “cool” to criticize teachers – indeed, one is branded a right-winger if you don’t unreservedly support teachers – one also has to say, I think, that in order to make sense of student engagement, it is alarming that only a small fraction of the engaged students (nevermind the tiny percentage of ALL students) could be categorised as being inspired by the teacher. You write that teachers are dependent on their students for their compliance and buy-in. Well, that’s true, and I’ve certainly taught the same way with two separate groups of students only to find that 1 group is seemingly more engaged than the other. The student mix does count for something. On the other hand, it is an open secret that a teacher’s knowledge, skill & enthusiasm in bringing a subject alive is crucial to student engagement. I would like to see – if you are inclined – a discussion on the reasons for so much uninspiring teaching. We might include the usual suspects (e.g., teacher training programs, school leadership, a test-driven climate, poverty, student mobility, etc.). Having this conversation does not mean that we scapegoat teachers. But if the issue before us is student engagement, I think it is completely fair to ask about the role of the teacher in this equation.
larry cuban January 4, 2015 at 6:39 pm
Thanks for the comments, Michael.These are fair points, in my opinion, that you raise about the teacher’s responsibilities for “inspiring” students. My hunch is that so little occurs–I agree with your observation–for the very reasons you offer: the outer environment for public school teaching has become increasingly toxic, the school workplace has become increasingly regulated,teacher preparation institutions too much out-of-touch with these conditions, etc. etc. These are powerful influences on teachers daily lessons, in my opinion. Insofar, as engaged teaching and the different groups of students who simply comply, buy-in, or become inspired, I have no measure that is reliable to characterize how much or how little engaged teaching occurs. Surely, the teacher is part of the equation, as you say, because teachers are dependent on students as surely as doctors are dependent upon patients, therapists on clients. But other factors–the chemistry of relationships among students,teacher expertise, and many others come into play making general statements about the teacher’s part nearly impossible to defend. What do you think?
All of this is true, as it concerns non-ideal conditions in which teachers work – and these of course are not uniquely American problems. Further, the factors that you also name, Larry, which change the chemistry of any particular class, certainly have an impact on teacher effectiveness and student engagement. But now to touch upon another open secret, certainly to those who have watched year after year the folks who are drawn to the teaching profession, and that is this. While there are marvelous and resourceful and dynamic teachers in every cohort, in every school, and in every teacher training program, the painful fact remains that far too many uninspiring individuals – who, perhaps, are more compliant with the non-ideal conditions, finding it easier to yield to them – are drawn to teaching in the first place. Without minimizing any of the critique about schools, their inequitable structures, and the copious challenges that teachers face, it seems to me that we cannot deny this as being a significant part of the problem as it concerns lack of student engagement. This is not a “teacher slamming” moment so much as a lament. I think that even if we were to improve – by whatever means – the conditions in which teachers teach, and optimize classrooms, we would still find far too many lackluster teachers and consequently far too little student engagement. How can this be changed? I honestly don’t know because there is always a demand for teachers, and students spend a lot of money getting their training, and hence there is a lot of pressure to simply give out licenses provided all the boxes can be ticked and all formal qualifications are met.
larry cuban January 5, 2015 at 10:37 am
Thanks for the follow-up comment, Michael. You say: “I think that even if we were to improve – by whatever means – the conditions in which teachers teach, and optimize classrooms, we would still find far too many lackluster teachers and consequently far too little student engagement. How can this be changed?” I believe that you hold teachers to a higher bar than lawyers, doctors, engineers, etc. your comments about “lackluster” teachers is not about ineffectiveness or mediocrity but insufficiently inspiring to gain student engagement. My research and direct experience with doctors, for example, show that many doctors have low levels of communication skills, offer little empathy, and have restricted listening capacity yet they are competent, make diagnoses, and know what they are doing in recommending treatments. My point is that in every profession I know,”lackluster” is commonplace–the bell-shaped curve, so to speak.It is teachers with expertise in subject matter, classroom moxie, and communication skills that are needed in every classroom. Whether they inspire students is a dividend, not a requirement.
I agree, Larry, that I hold teachers to a higher standard, and that may be unfair. But while teachers can be competent yet uninspiring (like lawyers, doctors, etc.), only teachers spend thousands of hours with children and are in such a position to have so much (or so little) influence. Doctors and lawyers, conversely, can be uninspiring, but still provide you with solid medical or legal advice. (That doesn’t mean they always will, of course.) And, one is rarely with a doctor or lawyer for very long! But to reiterate, mine is a lament, and the problem of low student engagement – and its relation to uninspiring teachers – probably has no cure. Sigh.
larry cuban January 5, 2015 at 3:01 pm
Thanks for raising the issue of teachers inspiring students, Michael. The back-and-forth with you, I found helpful in my thinking.
I found the back and forth exchange in the comments between you (Larry) and Michael M quite provocative. Might be worth pulling it out as its own blog post. I think it goes somehow to the core of our educational debate.
Are teachers essentially to be like “personal trainers” in that they should precisely expect many clients who, like your compliant-but-not-that-interested student, will try to wriggle out of exercise? And that to become a personal trainer is to sign up for a job where you try to “flip” as many of us exercise laggards (I am one) as you can?
Or is the teacher job more akin to the doctor, who most typically will explain to you that you should exercise more, but does not expect to hound you, to really drive that behavior change?
In the handful of charters that are high-performing, I think teachers knowing sign up for the “personal trainer” gig — and that explains the 75 hour week. The school is up front about it. The teacher knows what he/she is choosing. 55 hours of being a regular teacher and 20 additional hours of “trying to flip reluctant students.” Then after 4 years or so, they go on to something else. The implied cost of this amount of labor at scale would be huge.