According to the recent news, clearing rubble is one of the greatest challenges to rebuilding Haiti. A NY Times article earlier this week stated that it would take three to five years to remove all the debris from Haiti if 1,000 or more trucks worked daily. Yet, in some places not trucks, not wheelbarrows, but buckets are being used to clear rubble. Even then, there is no master plan for removing the rubble and no place to put it.
I started thinking about this problem during our third Ed Pioneers workshop on Human Capital. While discussing how to retain and assess high quality teachers, the focus quickly shifted to how to get rid of failing teachers. In response to criticism that the current teacher evaluation system makes it nearly impossible to terminate bad apples, Richard Stutman, President of the Boston Teachers Union, said that the teacher removal process is not as difficult as people think. Another panelist suggested that the current system allows teacher termination but is not used frequently enough.
Listening to this discussion, you might think that ineffective teachers are merely rubble needing to be removed in order to rebuild schools and education. On its face, this is a pretty easy metaphor to get behind. Like many young reformers, I’m all about monumental change: clearing out the old, entrenched ways of doing things to make room for bold new initiatives and human talent.
Yet, I was pulled in our discussion by a countervailing concern: the need for teaching to be viewed as a profession—and not as a “euphemism” as one of my peers suggested. If we want to truly value teachers as professionals, we cannot think of them as worthless debris clogging up our classrooms. Rather, we need to identify struggling teachers to make them superior teachers, developing them professionally rather than demoralizing them with unsatisfactory ratings and ditching them.
From my own experience as a teacher, there are a very small number of teachers who don’t belong in front of kids, while the vast majority of struggling teachers simply need the kind of training and guidance provided in other professions. There is a popular myth—promulgated by the media and by educators themselves—that the solution to education reform is getting brilliant talent into the teaching force. If we get enough superteachers, individuals who are bright enough, or resilient enough, or multi-cultural enough, then we will transform the system.
I tried to be one of those superteachers for three years, and the truth is, teaching talent—like talent in any other profession—does not magically appear out of thin air; it must be cultivated. Potential teachers need a core foundation of tools—including content mastery, resiliency, creativity, and the ability to reach children—but then they need on-the-job support to become proficient and eventually excellent. In places like Boston, where five people apply for every teaching vacancy, there is no shortage of potential talent. The question is, how do we train and retain talent so that we see a return on our investment, a return that translates into better education for students?
I don’t have the answer, but a starting point would be to recast our perception of teachers and teacher evaluation, to focus on the potential for growth rather than linger on failure. In Haiti, instead of throwing their hands up to the crumbled remains of their nation’s infrastructure, leaders are figuring out how to use the massive amounts of rubble to rebuild their country. Similarly, in the American teaching workforce, we must recognize in every mediocre or struggling teacher the potential to build a highly effective educator. Until we acknowledge that teachers—and by extension students—are worth investing in, we cannot determine how or where to make those investments so crucial to our educational future.