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What Do Teachers Do?

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If you live in New York, John will be appearing in discussion with former NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein on February 15th. You can purchase tickets here.

Last night over dinner, a retired educator -- still very involved -- suggested that the job of a teacher today was fundamentally different from what it was ten or so years ago. "Teachers are more like coaches now," he said. I chimed in with the view that, in the best of circumstances, teachers were explorers, and I riffed about the changed world, the internet, and the importance of adults helping kids formulate questions, not regurgitate answers. (If you've read The Influence of Teachers, you know the drill).

Listening quietly to us two old guys were two relatively young history teachers from an independent school. At one point one of us (finally) asked what they thought. The younger of the two smiled politely and said, in effect, "Your theories are fine, but we teach Advanced Placement History, and there's not much time for 'coaching' or 'exploring.'

Later, as I was walking to the subway, I wondered what the right word would be to describe what teachers do. If they're not 'the sage on the stage' or 'the guide on the side' and if they're not 'coaches' or 'explorers,' then what exactly are they today?

And, if it's true that in the best of worlds, teachers would function as coaches and explorers (guiding learning while also learning themselves), what stands in the way?

I am familiar with the complaints from teachers that they have to be social workers, surrogate parents, counselors, health care providers, nutritionists and more, and I have no doubt that is often true.

Crowded classrooms and other factors mean that teachers are often in the role of policemen, which is not what they signed up for.

New approaches to accountability also mean that teachers have to be ringmasters, whipping their unruly 'animals' so they will jump through the hoops of standardized tests -- or the hoops of a curriculum that is handed down from on high (and designed to be 'teacher-proof'). Someone up there still believes that knowledge is something to be poured into children's heads, like that awful graphic in the infamous movie "Waiting for 'Superman.'" I am reminded of John W. Gardner's observation, "All too often, we are giving young people cut flowers when we should be teaching them to grow their own plants."

Today's approaches to accountability may also be turning teachers into competitors, not teammates in a shared enterprise. If keeping my job depends on my students' test scores, then why should I help my colleagues improve?

My own belief is that most teachers would happily be teaching children 'to grow their own plants,' but that's not their decision. In my experience, many of their supervisors do not have much faith in their teachers. I think of the Director of Professional Development in the Washington, D.C., schools who told me in 2007 that in her opinion 80% (not a misprint) of the teachers in D.C. had neither the skills nor the motivation to be successful.

The sentence that precedes Gardner's pithy observation about flowers is descriptive. "Much education today is monumentally ineffective," he wrote in 1989, and one can only wonder at what he would be saying now.

I am still searching for the one right word to describe teachers today. Reviewing the candidates: competitors, policemen, social workers, surrogate parents, counselors, health care providers, nutritionists and ringmasters.

I happen to be a fan of well-designed charter schools, of which there are a fair number. These schools are found in systems that have refused to hand out charters like Halloween candy but instead set a high bar for approval. We're working on a documentary right now at Learning Matters about how charters helped transform New Orleans, in fact:

(We have a lot of lousy charter schools because of low standards -- garbage in, garbage out. Too many charter authorizers have made it too easy to get a charter, with predictable consequences. Therefore, no one should judge a charter school without taking a hard look. It would be like evaluating a car based on its color, as Ted Kolderie has observed.)

The schools I am writing about here have strong leadership, a balanced curriculum that includes art and music, and (most often) a strong working relationship with families. Inside these schools you find students and teachers who want to be there.

In these schools, the principals protect their teachers, enable them to be coaches and explorers, and hold them accountable for results. Learning is a team sport in these special places, as it should be. The adults in these schools recognize that the (paradoxical) goal of this team sport is to produce strong individuals, because (again quoting John Gardner), "The ultimate goal of the educational system is to shift to the individual the burden of pursing his own education. This will not be a widely shared pursuit until we get over our odd conviction that education is what goes on in school buildings and nowhere else."

And we have to get over our 'odd conviction' that teachers are the problem in education. It's not merely 'odd;' it's downright destructive of a vital profession.

Given all that many teachers are called upon to do, perhaps the one best word is 'juggler.'

On the other hand, if they are at various times policemen, social workers, surrogate parents, counselors, health care providers, nutritionists and ringmasters, then the one best word for 'teacher' has been staring me right in the face the entire time: teacher.

And a final note, for teachers: at Learning Matters, we're working on a "shared poetry project," which we hope will teach middle and high school students about literature, production, teamwork, project development, and more. Here is a detailed explanation. We produced a second sample today, based on Macbeth, and here it is: