Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Fish, fishing, fishermen, and the quality of teaching

I have engaged many times in the act of fishing and yet have failed to catch a fish. Could it be said that I was a fisherman or does the fact that I did not achieve my goal argue that I was not a fisherman? 

If you call yourself a salesman but never actually sell anything should you be considered a salesman?

If you call yourself a doctor but nobody ever gets healthy in your care should you be considered a doctor?

These are not - as surprising as it may seem - unimportant questions in my line of work.

I am a Superintendent. I am responsible for making sure that students learn. Most believe, as I do, that students learn best when they have a quality teacher in the classroom.

In fact, this year, teachers in the state of Michigan have to be rated highly effective, effective, minimally effective, or ineffective.

How do I determine a highly effective teacher?

Do I only look at the results?

In looking for a fishing guide I would look for someone who has caught fish not just someone who has the best fishing gear.

In determining how effective a teacher is should I not look for someone who can demonstrate that students have learned?

Or is it not as simple as that?

Can a person be good at teaching even though their students may not be able to demonstrate that they have learned?

Can teaching and learning be separated?  Can you have someone who engages in the activities of teaching but does not actually help a student learn?

Fenstermacher and Richardson, in an article that explores many interesting components that surround the issue of quality teaching, ask one particularly important question: What is the point where it is no longer acceptable to say we are teaching when no learning follows from our efforts?

Students must learn. But should we separate, at some point, teaching and learning?

Teachers who are judged to be highly effective, using Michigan's terminology, should be able to demonstrate good instructional strategies, knowledge of the curriculum, and an ability to assess learners. They should also be able to manage the classroom, engage students appropriately, and create a positive classroom culture. But should they be able to demonstrate that students have learned?

If one believes that the only variable in learning is teaching then we could and should hold teachers solely accountable for student learning.  But Fenstermacher and Richardson make the point that "focusing exclusively on teaching as the basis for success relieves the learner of any responsibility."

They also state that there needs to be a social support system - family, community, and peer culture - to support and assist in learning. Additionally, they make the point that learning is supported when there are sufficient facilities, time, and resources to accomplish the learning goals. 

Learning requires more than just a quality teacher. It also requires efforts by the student, by the social support network of the student, and by the school or district. But how do you wrap all of that into a teacher evaluation?

As a person tasked with identifying if a teacher is highly effective that question causes me heartache. Evaluating teachers is fraught with nuance. It is not a simple checklist that can easily identify a teacher's impact.

But ultimately that is what I want - a process that makes me think about what a teacher does and what is the impact. I can't be satisfied with easy or simple answers. For the answers we arrive could potentially impact our children for a lifetime.  

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