The Most Valuable Teacher: Subject or Effectiveness Based Award

What is an effective teacher?  What should a teacher teach?  How are education and learning defined?

None of the questions above are new, and despite what many pushing for reforms and many opposing reforms may promote I doubt that a single correct answer exists.

Is the system broken beyond repair, or can it be patched?  Let me provide my disclaimer here.  I have taught at community colleges and a variety of four-year institutions ranging from regional universities who emphasize undergraduate teaching to state and research universities where research productivity is the greatest measure of success and some semesters your student interactions are limited to graduate students.  While I’m a product of public schools K through 12, my only K through 12 teaching experience is approximately a half dozen substitute teaching days at my old high school and a nearby rival school.  I do not have a single credit hour on undergraduate or graduate school transcripts with any type of “Education” prefix.

As a history chair, I had a major conflict with a professor in the College of Education who wanted me to endorse a United States history survey course specifically geared for education majors so they would not have to take the traditional course.  At another institution, the chair of the Education department and I coordinated on a workshop to help social studies teachers at all levels find and use primary source materials appropriate for different grade levels.

I think of “formal” education as a process which lasts from K, or today, Pre-K through earning a PhD or professional degree.  I’m not implying that one needs to or even should earn any degrees, but I am asserting my belief that the formal education process is an integrated one versus separate and distinct systems.  Under most circumstances, I will be more effective teaching a student in college who has previously been taught by superior teachers.  Some of my peers disagree with me, but I believe that I have more in common with a kindergarten teacher than we have differences in what we need to accomplish inside the classroom.  Our environments and challenges do differ in many respects, but the idea of preparing a student to move to the next level is similar.

Let me also clarify that much of my opposition to many reforms rests upon the opinion that what happens inside the classroom cannot be separated from what happens outside.  Despite what some argue, I believe that environment and society play a dominant role regarding how well a student can learn and the effectiveness of a teacher or school.  Therefore, until we see a true appreciation and respect for education and teachers within society, no change will maximize its potential for a lasting positive impact.

In some areas I have seen teachers and those striving for an education ostracized.  That has to change, and if that change occurs at the high end of the scale I believe it will trickle down.  Elected officials, those individuals popular in society, those successful in their respective careers must embrace and champion the necessity for commitment and education for students to accept and desire to learn all that they can.  A single segment can foster improvements, but those will be limited unless everyone makes a commitment.

On the other hand, I’ll admit that some teachers should not be in the profession.  I believe that is possible to learn something from anything and everyone.  The ability for something or of someone to impart that knowledge directly to another is not always present.  In some respects teaching is easy, but in others teaching can seem a near impossible endeavor.  That’s not some type of double talk, but an admission that many variables exist which cannot be controlled in the teaching process.  I’ve written before that teaching is similar to any other occupation in that you have superior individuals, those who are not doing an acceptable job, and the majority of people somewhere between those extremes.

 A New System?

Often on college and university campuses someone begins the debate of which subjects are most valuable to teach or disciplines of most value to a student for career opportunities.  I believe the debate is valid to a certain degree at the levels I teach, but I’m referring to upper level and specifically graduate level courses.  In freshman and sophomore survey and introductory level courses, however, I believe that less distinction exists amongst the various disciplines.  By looking at a method being implemented in a K to 12 system, I’m curious about the feelings of teachers of different levels and disciplines about this approach.

In Douglas County, Colorado, the school system is implementing a new “market-based” pay rate for teachers.  Using a “supply and demand” formula, the system creates five (5) salary bands for teaching jobs.  “Most elementary, art and physical education teachers are in the lowest bracket; their annual salary tops out at $61,000. Middle-and high-school English teachers can earn up to $72,000. High-school science and math teachers draw upper salaries of $82,000. At the very top: Special education therapists, who max out at $94,000.”

The premise is that the positions that are hardest to fill should be paid more.  The “hardest to fill” criteria is based upon what an individual working in that discipline in the non-academic sector would be paid.  Obviously, some professions are more lucrative financially than others.  Supply and demand plays a primary factor in determining compensation.  Why should education systems not apply those same market values to teachers?

What troubles me is the assumption that a student only learns about a certain subject within the confines of a specific course or with a specific instructor.  I’ve made the same arguments concerning evaluations of teachers.

In my rural public school upbringing, most assignments and projects involved multiple subjects.  The teachers encouraged, no actually demanded, that you apply and adapt what you learned elsewhere to whatever subject they happened to be teaching.  I know many of my classmates actually learned mathematical concepts in our Ag classes.  We had a very good math teacher, but for many kids numbers on paper did not sink in, but figuring out how many rows you could put in a particular field, number of plants per row, feet of black plastic, gross and net profits, and so on attached themselves inside the thickest of skulls.  When in the context of stringing a barbed wire fence, nobody transposed perimeter and area formulas.  Somehow angles and such became easier when instead of writing it out on pieces of paper, you use a cutting torch, welding rods, or different saws.  I consider my high school history teacher my first professor, but my high school principal actually had me reading biographies about Napoleon.  My principal was military and had degrees in mathematics.  If you do not know of the connection of Napoleon with math, history, and the military, you might find some research interesting.

That was as a student

As a professor we had a transfer student who needed an upper level elective course outside his academic college to graduate with a degree in Biology.  The young man was a scientific whiz who could not enroll in any of the available course offering because of scheduling conflicts.  That was not his fault, and unlike one of my peers, I offered to conduct an independent study course without compensation to allow him to graduate that semester.   He had several books to read, some formal reviews to write along with some one on one discussions, and a multifaceted term project.

In that environment it is virtually impossible not to get to know the student.  It turned out that the young man’s intense educational drive resulted from his Mom and Dad.  Both only had high school diplomas, but both loved to read and told him at a young age that if you can read you have the ability to learn anything.  His high school English teacher started his interest in science and medicine with some novels and biographies.  Even technical journals, if he came across concepts unfamiliar, he knew how to use other resources to help him understand.  It was not until college that he ever took a Biology course.  For too many “reformers” of education today, the idea that a top level student who has since earned graduate degrees in different areas of Biology decided on that path not from any science teacher but simple reading at home and an excellent high school English teacher who helped him to discover what he did not know.

I don’t have a one size fits all program for formal education.  I will contend that some things cannot be quantified statistically.  I honestly don’t know what at or below grade level actually means outside of numbers on a piece of paper.  It may never be clear to me how such broad assessments can be made with statistical consistency of isolated individuals and subjects.  Value added models can account for some variables, but not all.  My contention is that thinking of teaching as a business with different monetary values placed on different subjects, and a want to place every subject or grade into these isolated little bubbles will result in a lessening ability to adapt and apply different skills in a variety of applications. Sure there are a place for evaluations and even a need, but does anyone really know for sure with all these reforms what is actually being evaluated?  If you do, is what is being evaluated actually legitimate and relevant to the learning process?

I think that if we can get students and parents to feel a sense of ownership in the local schools we will see better environments.  Some want to argue for vouchers, but some of the benefits of vouchers could be achieved at the local school if the emphasis and desire were placed there.  Each situation will be different, so that does make it more difficult for some areas.

The formal educational process at all levels needs to make some adjustments.  That’s not a knock, it’s only an observation that things do change.  A high school degree has to mean something again.  Generations past allowed a high school diploma to open the entrance to a career.  I think we can tweak the system to create those same opportunities today and not necessarily by tracking.  Teacher training will need to be adjusted as well.  Still, training will not matter if teachers do not have the support of society and thus the opportunity to earn and maintain the respect of the students.  Teachers are not the villains; neither are students.

DVD teachers are certainly not the answer despite what Bobby Jindal and John White decided to finance as educational opportunities “for students.”  I think it will take a collective effort, and that effort will not be easy and will not be fast.  It will be slow and maybe painful, but society, and we are all part of this society must make education into that desired element where dreams are possible and effort moves you along that pathway.  Profit will be for society at large and not necessarily a monetary profit for a private business.