30 January 2011

Hot and Cold

I've spent some time this week thinking about what makes for a "good" teacher. There are much better minds than I (and others with far more influence, for better or worse) who are trying to get down to the nuts and bolts of good teachers---and I will leave them to their own work. Me? I've been thinking about perspective.

If I talk to parents about what makes for a good teacher, would I get a different list of attributes than if I asked a fellow teacher? What about the difference---if any---for different grade bands. Is a good elementary teacher different from a good high school teacher? What do students and administrators think?

What happens in a classroom is a complex dynamic. Can we...should we separate it from the factors that exist outside of it in order to identify what qualifies as "good"?

Part of what has been driving my thinking about this has been the projects I'm doing at work. Rest assured that I have absolutely no part of teacher quality discussions in this state. Rather, I've been interested to watch the participation in the ongoing field tests and opportunities for feedback and PD around the new assessments. Elementary teachers? They are ecstatic about jumping in to help. They communicate amongst themselves...collaborate and support one another in trying things out. They share. Middle school teachers? Maybe not quite as enthusiastic of a response as elementary, but still very collegial in their approach. High school teachers? *crickets* It is as if there is a continuum of hot interest to frigid refusal as you move up in grades.

Being a former high school teacher, I find this intriguing. Many of the high school teachers who have had at least a toe in this work are fantastic classroom teachers (by my personal standards). They give everything they have to their students, care deeply about their content...and struggle to commit to their own peers. This is not new to me---I could pull any number of posts from my archives detailing my frustrations with lack of support from other teachers in my high school. But recent events have me wondering: Can you be a good teacher if you're only good within the confines of your classroom?


PamelaTrounstine said...

Elementary teachers sometimes consciously share because they have 8 things to prep for every day- reading, reading intervention, language arts, language arts intervention, math, math intervention, ELD and testing. (Oh, wait, you were expecting science or social studies? Sorry, only so far as it fits into ELD.) Collaborating effectively can have an affect on that prep time- at my grade level, when in staff meetings we had to pick 3 interventions every meeting, we picked them, discussed what they should look like, and then each of us went to build one. Homework was often put together the same way, picked carefully by one teacher to support LA, another to support the math actually being taught that week.

But of course, in other ways it is bad, because this kind of collaboration and similar professional development, etc. etc. encourages others to see elementary teachers as widgets, and entirely interchangeable. So you will always get some that refuse to cooperate because they want any success for their students to stand out as unique and something they alone can take credit for. And you bet that NCLB "fire all the teachers and make them re-apply for their jobs" behavior will encourage more of this.

It gets harder to collaborate broadly when you start teaching separate subjects. Of course, teachers meet by subject, and some schools also organize teams, where students are grouped into a cluster of core teachers covering the same grade level, which can help solve the problem of trying to get to know students in 50 minutes a day.

By high school though, so much specialization is going on, it can be hard for those who want to collaborate. There isn't necessarily a grade-level reason to get together. And there's a bit of a culture of being responsible for your own stuff. But AP teachers, they have to develop their own everything and get it approved, and it is considered their intellectual property, so when it comes to my h.s. teacher friends teaching AP, there is a huge reason not to do any collaboration, esp. when some of their favorite AP tricks trickle down to their other classes.

A said...

Intriguing questions!
I do think that a good elementary teacher is different from a good high school teacher (possibly very different). I think good/great teachers have found their niche.
As a middle school teacher on hiatus, with a k-12 background, I have also noticed the "continuum" you've mentioned. Not a perfect scale since I have known some (as I'm sure you have) elementary teachers to be "frigid refusers" and high school teachers to be "hotly interested." Then there are us middle school teachers who can be just as fickle as the students we teach ;-)
Maybe it's all about the numbers: if the majority of faculty are ready & willing the others tag along, and visa vera?