I'm baaaaaaack.

Hoarding All the Glitter Since 2001.

28 June 2011

The Problem with Master Teachers

If you want to be a really great teacher, get out of the classroom.

Seriously, within weeks you will look back on your classroom days through a heady rose tint.

I don't know what causes this, but I do know it's close to universal.  Part of it is that if you're in a coaching job or ed reform job or marking time administrating, you are probably reading books and articles about pedagogy, management and all that noise.  These books are invariably written by people who have spent little time teaching, and the words are so nice and aligned on the page: look how easy this teaching thing is!  Just like a formula!

And hey, they're probably calling you a "Master Teacher" or "Teacher Leader" or something.  People start believing in their titles.

You likely are also observing teachers teaching.  Observation is great because observers see all kinds of things that the working teacher does not.  They are in a position to simply watch.  They can get up and move around to notice specific events.  They have no responsibility for management, content or results.

This means the observer is going to notice things the working teacher does not, and that can be an enormous help.  You may not know that the two students sitting next to each other are having a spat that day, or that what appears to be notetaking down the aisle is actually highly involved doodling (if I am a student in your class).

Of course, the observer may not know that the detailed doodling involving multiple colors of ink is a listening device, and if that student cannot doodle, there will be no recall (and rather more foot-tapping, note-passing and smarmy-comment-making).

See, the observer doesn't know the students.  Nor does the observer necessarily know anything about the management strategies in use.  Maybe the grumps in the back are actually working on problem-solving techniques and they're going to check in with the teacher after class.  But the combination of an all-seeing eye and a belief in one's own greatness makes it difficult for the observer to even remember to ask about these questions.

And the longer you're out of the classroom, the worse that superiority gets.  This is why I'm leery of Master Teachers, Instructional Reform Facilitators and similar who are out of the classroom for years on end.  I have the experience of watching these people reflect upon their teaching with rosier and rosier glasses every year.  They get harder and harder and more convinced they know what's going on, and their technical knowledge often is beyond compare.  But they aren't teachers anymore and they don't necessarily know how to put all that technique into practice.

This is why I think out-of-the-classroom jobs should be term-limited; three years out and then one in, say.  Or at the very least Master Teachers and Literacy Coaches and the like should be doing regular - more than once a week - demonstration lessons.  During my one year (I.  hated.  it.) out of the classroom, that's what kept me from a swollen head.  (Moreover, my demostration lessons tended to go really well, which gave me credibility when I did have suggestions for a lesson or a management problem.  And when I did have issues, I was honest about them and took the blame rather than assigning it to the students or the general teaching their regular teacher gave them.)

This would also help keep people useful.  I have more teaching experience than my principal and the staff IRFs combined.  I also like to read a lot, am a big nerd, and have had a lot of professional development especially in literacy, so my technical knowledge is pretty strong.  Can I learn from these people?  Of course: there is a reason why observation is a good thing.  I actually request more observation than I get; I had a mess of people observe in my room this year, but rarely for the purpose of providing me with feedback.  (And sadly, even when you tell the observers that you demand feedback in exchange for being on stage, they may not have any to give.)  On the ground at a high-needs school, though, my needs are fewer and I have fewer questions, so I get less support.  If these educational leaders were doing more in-classroom lessons and demonstrations, I'd be able to observe those myself and benefit from being the all-seeing eye.  I'd also probably notice things I want to know more about that I haven't thought of (and therefore don't think to ask).

This is why I'm leery of evaluation-heavy systems like IMPACT in DC: I know myself how the Master Teacher role - which sounds so supportive and pro-teacher - can turn evaluative and administrative.  No one is as awesome teaching as they think they are when they're not.

In other news, I am going hiking with some teachers today.  We are playing Raid E. Rat's Closet beforehand.

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