on education

thoughts from a graduate student at the university of mary washington

so, you want to be a teacher? week one.


In some ways, I think that kids understand from the beginning that there is a difference between teachers. It starts with “Mr. Smith is mean,” or “All right! Mrs. Lundin! Best teacher ever!” And at that young age, students usually equate this with how much homework they have, or how strict the classroom policy is. Or whether or not their teacher ever smiles. (Admit it, you were always nervous about the ones that didn’t smile.)

I became acutely aware of the great divide between teachers when I hit high school. It started in my trigonometry class. Now, I’ve never been very good at math. I was never one to shoot my hand up and volunteer my answers. But on this particular homework assignment, I was sure – absolutely sure – that I’d done it all right. I volunteered to write my answers on the board, but other people got called on instead. As their answers went up, my heart sank. Mine were all different. I raised my hand and asked the teacher – we’ll call him Mr. X – what went wrong. I was sure I’d done it right. And right there, in front of God and everyone, he said, “Well, I didn’t make a blonde answer sheet, Angela. That’s why your answers are different.” Everyone laughed. I was angry. I was humiliated. I was about thirty different things in that exact moment. And I can promise you that anything any other math teacher ever tried to get across to me never once entered my stream of conscious thought. I was ruined. Not because I got the answers wrong and didn’t want to try, but because I didn’t trust my teachers and what they’d do to me if I wasn’t perfect. Mr. X was definitely mean. But more than that, he was a horrible teacher.

So, what makes a great teacher? Definitely the opposite of Mr. X, right? But what does that really mean?

To me, it means having a place in your heart for every last one of the kids in your classroom. It means caring about their well-being. It means working to make sure they understand  and can manipulate the information that you’re presenting to them. It means getting them to think for themselves. Critically. It means creating a safe space for them to get things wrong and plow through their mistakes. Being a great teacher means leaving behind the idea that you’re the gate-keeper of infinite knowledge, and that you have all of the answers. Instead, a great teacher is in there learning with them, guiding them through lessons and experiments and crucial questions. And it means never, ever giving them a reason to give up on themselves.

It is no mistake, then, that there is mounting evidence to suggest that these great teachers are better than others at getting students to succeed. I believe that part of this has to do with the very nature and personality of the person doing the teaching. But more than that, I think that it all falls to how that teacher was taught how to teach. Let’s face it: nobody wants to be second. Nobody wants the silver medal, or worse, to miss the podium all together. So, when faced with evidence that Teacher Q has a smaller success rate than Teacher P across the board, the only take away is that they approach their classrooms very differently. At the base of it, the data has outed Teacher Q as an ineffective teacher. And Teacher Q doesn’t want that any more than I wanted to be humiliated in front of my peers. This failure doesn’t stop with Teacher Q, though. It reflects directly on the institution that trained him/her to be a teacher. In its report titled “Educating School Teachers,” the Education Schools Project found that a significant number of future teachers come from programs that do not measure up in the areas of curriculum, standards, or faculty. (Ornstein, Levine, & Gutek, 2011, p.16). That means that teachers are entering the workforce in droves unprepared. The faculty at these institutions would be quite insistent on finding flaws in the evidence that shows that they, too, are ineffective teachers. They have not prepared their students for managing and engaging a classroom, and in turn, the K through 12 students in the charge of those teachers don’t have the same chances for success as their peers in a more effective teacher’s class. Noting the human aversion to being the fall guy, it is only natural that these teacher educators and teachers would want to place blame somewhere else for their students not doing well or being unprepared.

So, why is it that more isn’t being done at the school level to alleviate this?

When faced with this student achievement data in their teachers’ classrooms, principals may be reluctant to do much about it. There are so many variables that are traditionally used to determine school-wide performance, such as attendance rates, test scores, and differences in the student body from year to year. Perhaps they feel that using just one set of data gives them a lopsided reflection on student achievement, and they would be remiss to base decisions on one data set.

I believe that the aforementioned data sets would fall under what Kati Haycock, Director of Education Trust, terms as “causes of underachievement” (Haycock, 2000) for students in her organization’s report on student achievement. In her speech Educating for What? The Struggle for Democracy in Education, Deborah Meier suggests that the achievement gap between students rests not with simple achievement scores as Haycock believes, but with the incarceration rate, poverty, and low-wage jobs.(Meier, 2008) She argues that instead of addressing the real problem, we focus on student test scores as the sole basis for measuring achievement, when we should be focusing on the larger picture at a massive, societal level.

Now, I’ve seen Dangerous Minds. And Freedom Writers. And every other success story where a teacher swoops in and rescues his or her students from disaster and impending doom regardless of the students’ circumstances. And though some are fictionalized, we cling to those stories. As educators, we cling to them because they’re more or less true. Nothing else matters – not income level, not language barriers, nothing – as long as there is a great teacher in that classroom willing to go above and beyond to understand his or her students and make sure that they succeed. Can you save everyone? Of course not. But you can try. As Kati Haycock (2000) suggests, repeatedly falling back on all of these other data sets to determine student achievement and make excuses for poor results “makes us wonder, in fact, how much higher the pile of evidence will have to grow before we concede in our professional lives what we certainly know in our roles as parents…and knew as students, as well. Teachers matter a lot.”



Haycock, K. (2000). Thinking k-16. Retrieved from https://canvas.umw.edu/courses/426776/assignments/1996858?module_item_id=4255342

Meier, D. (2008, February 7). Educating for what? The struggle for democracy in education. Retrieved from http://deborahmeier.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/2009_educatingforwhat.pdf

Ornstein, A. C., Levine, D. U., & Gutek, G. L. (2011). Motivation, Preparation, and Conditions for the Entering Teacher.                        Foundations of education (11th ed., p. 16). Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.




posted under EDCI 506
2 Comments to

“so, you want to be a teacher? week one.”

  1. Avatar August 29th, 2012 at 1:55 pm ctrumbetic Says:

    I think you make some very interesting and great points. I especially enjoyed the way you connected your own experience in math class to to teacher effectiveness. Any teacher who would make a comment referring to being a “dumb blonde” is not a terrible teacher, they are a horibble and downright evil teacher. You make a lot of great points about what being a great teacher is, but one thing I think is critical for being a good teacher is passion. A teacher needs to have passion for their job which is probably a summary of everything you said. More importantly, I think a teacher needs to have passion for the material they are teaching. I know this isn’t always feasible considering all the different subjects offered in schools, but it certainly adds to the effectiveness of what is being taught.

  2. Avatar September 2nd, 2012 at 11:15 pm Jordan Kroll Says:

    You made some really strong points throughout your post. I especially like the line in the beginning about how great teachers are those who learn with their students, not the ones who think they already know everything. I had never really made that connection in those terms before, but it’s so true. It’s easy for authority figures to forget that they can learn with their students because they are often so preoccupied with being the role model. If more teachers could recognize an opportunity to learn and grow alongside their students, I think education could be more engaging for everyone involved. Also, Mr. X wasn’t just a horrible teacher; he sounds like a horrible person.

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