What makes a good teacher? It’s a question at the center of the debate of how to fix this country’s schools. Bill and Melinda Gates are investing millions in a study in cooperation with the UFT to answer this question. Meanwhile Mayor Bloomberg and Joel Klein have made rewarding good teachers and removing bad teachers a major plank of their platform for reform in NYC. President Obama and Secretary Gates seem inclined to follow a similar path. And yet, the question is more difficult to answer than you might think.
Of course there’s the textbook answer, one used by teaching colleges and alternative certification programs like NYCTF and TFA to guide newcomers to the profession. A good teacher according to these guidelines is someone who differentiates instruction to reach all learners, regularly assesses and collects data in order to inform instruction, regularly reflects on best practices in order refine instruction, collaborates with members of their learning community to create a network of support for all learners, and creates a safe and inviting environment for learning to take place in. I’m sure I’m forgetting something here… but all in all, I think we can say I’ve been taught well.
The question is, what does a good teacher actually look like? More to the point, how does a teacher decide that he or she is a good teacher. It is one thing to understand a set of criteria or a “continuum of teacher development,” but it’s another thing entirely to internalize those standards and decide, “Yes, I am succeeding,” or “No, I am failing.” I say this, because it’s a decision I’m struggling to make right now.
Nobody says you’re supposed to be a perfect teacher by Year 3. Conventional wisdom places the learning curve for teaching at around 3-5 years. However, for someone who 1) doesn’t necessarily foresee a lifetime career in teaching ahead of him, and 2) sees his job as a teacher in a high need community as practically life or death, 3-5 years doesn’t exactly cut it. I want to be a good teacher now. I need to be a good teacher now.
Last year, I have to say I let myself feel pretty good about my teaching abilities. Observations and evaluations by people in my school, a Kaplan consultant and my Fordham mentor all supported this arrogance. Comments like, “I can’t believe you’re a 2nd year teacher,” and “Can I have another student of mine visit your classroom?” lead me to believe to a certain extent that I had mastered much of what I needed to know. I never gave up on reflecting on what was working or improving what I was doing. But did I think I was a good teacher? Yes.
In my third year, I’m reevaluating this. And while it’s scary to face this reality, reality is much preferable to a delusion. I’ve realized much of what impressed visitors and myself last year was management. When I get to the core of my instruction and ask myself did it reach all the kids and help them grow, I realize there were many flaws. Looking at reading specifically, many of my students didn’t show the progress I hoped to see when June came around.
Now in a new school, needing to prove myself all over again, the question of whether I’m a good teacher feels all the more pressing and personal. I know how to appear to be a good teacher by staying on top of paperwork and creating a pleasant looking classroom environment. I also know that sometimes admitting your weaknesses in a NYC public school doesn’t always get you the help you need, but rather a mix of condescension and antagonism. For the sake of the kids, I’m obviously willing to risk it.
Am I a good teacher? I care intensely about the kids I teach (is that on the continuum of development?) and I am trying very hard to do my best everyday. My classroom is a safe place for kids and ideas. These are the things I am sure of right now. For everything else “good” will have to be a work in progress.
About our First Person series:
First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.