July 30, 2015

You’re Not Number One

I don’t know the full context of this statement so this isn’t a personal attack in any way but rather a concern about an attitude that reveals 2 huge issues in education.

1. Teachers as Superheroes. If you subscribe to the sentiments of Hollywood and movies that portray teachers as being able to overcome all the ills and challenges of their students, I worry about you. First watch this.

The Myth of the Super Teacher from Education Writers Association on Vimeo.

I am totally aware of studies which suggest that teachers are the number one factor in student success. My concern with those studies is the measure of student success, which is testing as well as the fact that these studies only focus on what happens in schools. They dismiss the other factors because they are out of the teacher’s control. While I understand the urge to use outside factors as an excuse for lack of success, it cannot nor should not be ignored. Particularly when those outside forces actually contribute positively to student success. I don’t mean to discount what teachers do. I’m a teacher, my wife is a teacher, I work with teachers around the world and think they are generally about the most wonderful, caring group of people I know. You’re not likely to find a bigger advocate for teachers than me. But I also don’t think they have the ability to single-handedly determine a student’s success. I realize that’s not exactly what the tweet above is saying, but it does promote the idea that teachers are the most important person when it comes to student success. That’s just not true. Student success firstly needs some definition. Even if you’re only able to use test scores and grades as your metric, it’s still a false idea. But if you believe that success is way beyond those numbers, you have to acknowledge that people need a myriad of people and opportunities to really be successful.When I think of my own children, I’d like to believe my wife and I played a role in their success. There is a tendency  to picture students from troubled homes and challenging handicaps that must be overcome. I love that teachers will do whatever it takes but without the support of leadership and others, even the best, most capable teachers won’t be able to do this on their own. The backlash of this sentiment is that teachers take the lack of success of their students as a personal attack on the efficacy. When students are successful, it’s important to recognize a great teacher likely did play an important role but that they are able to point to many who contributed. I worry that too much pressure is placed on the teacher and in turn takes us back into the time where isolation and closed doors dominated schools. For our young teachers, in particular, this is the wrong message and one that adds undue stress to an already daunting calling. It’s another reason why terms like “rock star” and other superlatives concern me. I’m not trying to downplay the role and value of teachers in any way I just think a servant mindset may go a longer way to student success than one of a super hero. I want teachers to take ownership, to work hard, but I also want them to know that the role they play in student success is one of many factors.

2. A question of ownership? As Alan November has been asking for years, “Who owns the learning?” This question would seem to place the bulk of the success and rightly so upon the student. If teachers feel they are the number one determinant in student success, I would think the tendency would be to direct the bulk of the learning. Now we’re back to teachers taking the reigns and students better watch closely. The goal of education is become a learner. We also hear so much about the importance and value of failure. This means that we have to accept when a student, for whatever reason, isn’t successful. That doesn’t mean we give up, certainly, we look for other avenues and opportunities for them to be successful but student choice at some point has to be granted, even if they occasionally make a bad choice. In the end, the student is the number one determinate for their success. So take pride in what you do. Realize that as a teacher you do make a difference. But also realize that you’re just one person in that student’s life. Understand that their parents should play a greater role in their success than you do but if for some reason they aren’t involved, try and connect your students to many more caring adults. Enlist the help of others in supporting student learning and most of all, remind and empower your students to be the main determinate of their own success. You are important, but you’re not number one.