The Need for Eccentricity in Education

Good teachers are eccentrics. This does not mean that they have quirky habits and mannerisms or that they stand out in any obvious way. This eccentricity is often quiet; it comes from diving into the subject in order to grasp its essence, then bringing it to the students in a form that they can understand. The teacher acts as a messenger and undergoes transformations. Now she sits absorbed in a book, oblivious to her surroundings; later she bursts into recitation, waking students up into a poem. The teacher’s mind keeps working and playing at odd moments of the day—during walks down the hall, lunch breaks, and the waits beside the photocopy machine.

Education reform doesn’t honor this eccentricity. Instead, it pushes teachers and students toward a norm that it then tries to lift. You can’t lift a norm. Norms are just that: normal, average, unlifelike, heavy. To make schools better, you have to honor education’s spark and wit. Teachers and students who do the best work do it in slightly unusual ways.

Many believe fervently in judging teachers by their students’ test scores. In their view, nothing could be fairer. Let teachers teach in the way they deem best, and judge them by their results. But what is the upshot of this? Teach for America has been working on a formula to identify, in advance, the teachers likeliest to bring test score increases. So far, their most robust findings are that prospective teachers with high college GPAs and demonstrated leadership skills (such as experience running a club) tend to bring about higher test scores in their students. This points to a dubious conclusion that we should give preference to prospective teachers who were presidents of clubs and got 4.0 GPAs.

Imagine the consequences. If you’re an introverted student who loves to dwell on a passage in a story or novel, or who enjoys proving a mathematical theorem in different ways, then you will be set on edge by a cadre of teachers who view education as a means to a material end—who emphasize getting the scores, getting the resume, getting elected president. Some of my most brilliant teachers had roundabout and zigzag lives; they probably did well in school, even spectacularly well, but their GPA was in many cases a side effect of what they did. They had some kind of spirit of leadership, but often it wasn’t overt; they might never have run any club.

Of course it’s fine to bring about test score gains, as long as that is not the primary goal—but it’s folly to identify and favor the personalities who can do so. There’s a fuzzy space where students who show good but not stellar test score gains may actually be learning more than those whose scores excel. Their long-term learning may be greater; their progress may be steady and strong. Their teachers may leave them with things that they remember years later. (This may also not be the case, but the possibility is there.)

Well, say the reformers, that’s why we have holistic teacher evaluations. They balance things out. The teacher is judged not only on the test scores, but also on her lesson planning, classroom atmosphere, and more.

Yes, this is so. But the “holistic” teacher evaluation rubrics favor the well-rounded teacher who has all the recognized components of good teaching. It does not favor the teacher with outstanding, overriding strengths—for instance, the teacher who has exceptional knowledge of her subject but is not especially involved in community events, or the teacher who gives memorable lessons but does not emphasize group activity. Oh, and woe on the absent-minded teacher. Rubrics such as Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching give the highest rating to teachers who set and achieve concrete goals for the lesson, who emphasize small group work, whose classrooms are highly organized, who collaborate frequently with colleagues, and who engage in approved professional development activities.

Test scores and teacher evaluations  can tell us a great deal. But we should be wary of a world in which everyone does everything just so. Education is full of bumps and gleams. Here’s to the teacher who wants students to do well but, even more than that, wants them to walk away with something. That means spending some days hitting the stone with the pick and getting nothing from it. It means bringing students stories and lessons from other times and mines, so that they will know that their work is not a waste. It means releasing oneself from petty pressures, letting oneself be with the work and nothing else. And it means—for teachers and students alike—not worrying too much about what others do and say, or what one’s instant rating might be.

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  1. What makes schools great? | Brisbane Girls Grammar School

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