Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Good teacher, bad teacher

While a good or bad plumber is just good at plumbing or bad at plumbing, an evaluation of a teacher as good or bad carries overtones of moral judgment. In part rightly so, in that the quality of our work impacts children who have little choice about the matter, and in that this impact can be of lasting benefit or harm. It then becomes an ethical responsibility to teach well enough or else leave. Teachers often weigh their various job options partly in ethical terms, noting that while they do have the option of leaving dysfunctional schools, the students do not, and that for the children stuck in there the alternative to a teacher disgusted by administrative failure may well be a teacher who does not care at all.

Research on moral outlooks as predictors of teacher quality and longevity appear to provide contradictory conclusions. In the article Teacher Burnout in Black and White, Martin Haberman refers to one study that indicates that
the notion that altruism can be the motivation of teachers serving diverse children in poverty should be problematic
while later referring to another, older, study which concludes that
special education teachers who stay express an altruistic purpose and deep personal obligation to serve their students. Those who leave have an unselfish regard as well but lack the depth of conviction found in teachers who stay.

In the same article, young idealists, who burn out in droves within few years, are contrasted with "strong insensitives," teachers who stay because they do not care enough to be discouraged and who take no responsibility for student failure. Haberman refers to studies that suggest that actually
teachers who leave have less of a negative impact on schools and students than those who burn out but remain in teaching.
Staying beyond some critical level of exasperation does no-one any good.

Who can stay in dysfunctional schools and do right by the children for an extended period of time? If these are, as Haberman suggests elsewhere, typically non-judgmental and apolitical, able to focus on their classrooms while chaos reigns outside, then they are probably not the same people as those who are inclined to shake up and reform a school, to start a new school, or to take action to drive out administrators who do harm. A certain set of personality traits may be needed for protecting learners and learning in a poorly run district for an extended period of time, and since large, high-poverty school districts have crushingly great inertia such teachers are sorely needed. A different and incompatible set of inclinations altogether would seem to be needed for reorganizing and reinventing schools to serve students better.

This complicates the simplistic idea that somehow a good teacher is a good person who does what is good for the kids, and it replaces elements of the moral judgment inherent in the expression "good teacher" with a question about a good fit between teacher and situation. If matters of teacher quality overlap with the domain of morality, being a "good" teacher in the moral sense is in part a matter of chance and circumstance. I suspect that much public debate about teacher quality would be more constructive and engender less defensiveness if teacher effectiveness were cast in more relational terms and less in terms of personal ethics.

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