Can a teacher be born again?

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By Kate Walsh and Laura Pomerance

A recent cover story in Newsweek had us pondering the more metaphysical considerations surrounding teacher quality, namely the proposition that good teachers are only born, but cannot be made. Concludes Newsweek, "Much of the ability to teach is innate--an ability to inspire young minds as well as control unruly classrooms that some people instinctively possess (and some people definitely do not)."

However, a New York Times Magazine cover story published the next day reached a different conclusion, asserting that key aspects of teaching--including classroom management and teaching content--are "as specialized, intricate and learnable (emphasis added) as playing guitar." The authors of the two articles then debated this point on the Newsweek website but they never really got at the heart of the issue, that is, is it a waste of time to worry about what teachers are taught?

As tempting as it might appear to some, a teacher quality strategy that depends entirely on booting substantial numbers of bad teachers out on a regular basis is largely unworkable as a long-term teacher quality strategy. Certainly, removing the bottom 5 to 10 percent of all teachers, as Newsweek champions, could have a significant impact on student achievement. But what's next? An annual 5 percent purge of the profession? Not likely, and little will have been done to alter the dynamics of who is coming in to replace those who leave.

Which sways us back to the Times piece and has us asking why aren't more education schools teaching the types of powerful techniques that it so eloquently describes, techniques that might help make any bad teacher better or any good teacher great? For us, at least, the article provoked some forehead thumping. While we've read lots about the admirable work of Deborah Ball at the University of Michigan School of Education, we couldn't help but be in awe of the tremendous labor of love achieved by Doug Lemov (someone who seems never to have stepped foot in an ed school), who has single-handedly figured out the strategies used commonly by great teachers. Why, we ask, are these two such rareties?

As NCTQ has spent a great deal of time scrutinizing the internal workings of many of the nation's education schools, we have a theory why not. For their part, ed schools cling to an unworkable notion that every teacher must develop her own personal philosophy of managing a class or teaching children how to read. Even though Doug Lemov shows how four different teachers take four different approaches to using the same effective management technique, the typical ed school is afraid that teacher candidates' impulse to develop a fifth would be unnaturally squelched. That's why we find classroom management courses (to the extent that classroom management is taught at all) with their stated course objectives being the "development of the teacher candidate's visions of the classroom" and the cultivation of management approaches that reflect "beliefs that inform your perspective on teaching."

Why an inexperienced teacher in training should to be treated with such deference remains a mystery to us. In fact, we believe that most would just as soon have Lemov show them the ropes.