Finding Better Teachers

A few years ago, I went with a handful of high school students to tour the Google Pittsburgh office. It is located on the top floors of an old Nabisco Cookie factory on the eastern edge of the city. As Google does, they transformed the old chips-ahoy joint into some kind of strange mix between an office and an amusement park. There are kitchens everywhere, all kinds of different spaces for work and play, and a huge cargo net hanging over the space that serves as a massive hammock. If an employee is struggling with something at work, they can take a break for some pinball, hit the juice bar, or go get a massage or a haircut. If a change of scenery is needed, they can leave to all the trappings of a newly gentrified neighborhood. They can take their work on the road while enjoying some kind of kombucha or organic kale baked goods.

The colorful and happy workplace had the students enthralled. And I’ll admit, the thought of taking breaks while munching on any variety of their free fair trade oat bars in a huge hammock appealed to me as well. But I was more interested in an off-hand comment that our tour guide, a google employee, said about how his company hires people.

Their hiring process was a perfectly fine-tuned and scientific process that ensured that they only hired great candidates who were skilled in the necessary tasks to do the job. He said it with the confidence that can only come from experience.

“We only hire good people. Our process may miss some good people as well, but the ones who make it to this job are all good people. Then, it is our job to help them achieve once they are here.”

Of course, even Google’s advanced hiring metrics and experience has to miss sometimes, especially in some hidden aspects like character, but his point was important. The tech industry has figured out how to make sure that they get qualified and talented people in their jobs.

Why haven’t schools figured that out as well? There have been thousands of conversations and research studies on good  teaching in the past decade, but we have not been able to reasonably expect our new hires to be any better than they have ever been. The quick comment had me wondering if we could figure out some scientific process to figure out the personality type of great teachers, and then do whatever we can to put as many of those people in a classroom as possible.

It seems like too important of a venture to leave to chance or the gut feeling of some administrator.

If fortune 500 companies do this all the time, it only seems logical to assume that schools could do the same thing and save our country the millions of dollars and lives that we lose with ineffective teachers, administrators, and other school personnel.

We can argue all we want that teaching is different and it is much more challenging to find a good teacher than it is to find a computer programmer, but I’m not so convinced. There are many fields that require their practitioners to be skilled socially and logically, so teaching doesn’t have some special claim to that. So much of teacher advocacy has been wasted on convincing the public that there is no such thing as bad teachers, when all logical outcomes and evidence seems to point to the contrary. I think it actually elevates our profession, and the work that many of us do, if we admit that there are some pretty crappy teachers out there.

It seems worth spending a little more time talking about what makes good teaching. It’s the kind of giant topic that could actually be the whole purpose of this blog and we could spend time hashing out all of the intricacies and measurables of what a great teacher must possess, but for now we will just work on some basics. If nothing else, this serves as a way for me to help distill some things that have been spinning in my head for the last 10 years.

So here is a list that I can’t even pretend is exhaustive of some things we should look for in teachers. My hope is that Adam, my co-blogger here, jumps on the next post and tells me this list is horse shit. Then he proceeds to have a better one. Then, some people from google take this and tell us how to hire so we only get good teachers.

Passion

Energy mixed with love are the most important aspects of this job. Teachers need to love the students in the room, the content they are teaching, and the craft of teaching in order to excel in the classroom. I always stop short of saying that these things are all you need to be a great teacher, but I understand why people say that kind of thing. The assumption is that if you care about all the right things, then you will be able to perform all of the important tasks in the classroom. We often talk about this passion stuff like it is an intangible, or something that we can’t measure. However, we might benefit from changing that view and trying to find ways to understand what makes this kind of passion for teaching and learning. What does it sound like? How can we find it in applicants? How can we teach it and nurture it in other teachers? I’m sure there is already social science on all of this, but it would be worth it to dig into this more.

It’s Not About You

I think about this all the time. There are people in this job who have started to think that this work should cater to adults and our own conveniences. It is backward thinking that makes the teacher the client in this business, or the victim of our broken education system. Most teachers don’t think this way. Most of us know that our best move is to get out of the way and move students to the front. But sometimes, the loud minority screaming about how villainized we are tempts me to think otherwise.

Be Able to Talk About Learning… And Show It

I get a little nervous when teachers are hesitant to talk about learning and student growth. Of course, I understand that we often use standardized tests to measure this, but there is actually strong science supporting the reality that we can pretty consistently and accurately measure the growth of students in our room. Teachers often push back on the idea of being held accountable for student performance, but I think we have to budge here. Try not to spit your Folgers across the room at this suggestion. I’m just saying: Students learn from good teachers. And there is all kinds of research to show that they prove this in all kinds of ways. Including those standardized tests we all hate.

Teachers who have any kind of experience should be able to prove that students learn in their room. That should be an expectation.

Be Accountable to What Students Say About You

I’m fortunate enough to work in a district that uses the Tripod system of student feedback. Twice a year, I take a break in class to have the students fill out a rather lengthy survey about my room, my style, and the school. Then, each June I have my own personal little Christmas when I get the results. I am graded on what they call the “7Cs Framework.” I get scored on my ability to Care, Confer, Captivate, Clarify, Consolidate, Challenge, and manage the Classroom. Student feedback should be an integral part of how we judge teachers and hire new ones. Again and again, research shows that students learn more from teachers they like. It makes sense to do this kind of thing in every school and every classroom, and then use the results as one of our ways to measure teachers. There are always teachers who complain by saying that students are not reliable evaluators. That kind of deficit thinking shouldn’t be allowed in schools, and certainly doesn’t deserve a second interview. Every year, my feedback from students is similar. They notice the same strengths and weaknesses in my ability. They are more accurate evaluators than anyone else.

So, how about it education? Can we find a way to make sure we hire better teachers?