Front-liner #1: You Don’t Need An Education Degree to Be a Great Teacher

One of the primary criticisms of Teach For America and (to a lesser extent) charter networks is that they hire people with little or no formal education coursework. TFA in particular is (in)famous for taking any college degree as a baseline and then only six weeks of intensive training over the summer before beginning work in the toughest classrooms in the country by fall.

HOW FIT FOR A CLASSROOM CAN THEY POSSIBLY BE?!! people say. And I get it. I’m not saying formal education courses don’t matter at all. But here’s the thing: some of the best teachers I’ve ever met fall into this category. That’s hardly a subjective assessment I’m making. Whatever measure you like for teacher performance: test scores, administrative evaluations, good relationships with kids, good team players– these people are/were getting it done.

Not right away, maybe. But I have yet to see anybody in their first year getting it done fabulously without an awful lot of support at different levels. Teaching is made up of multiple skill sets that require lots of repetitions and refinement to get right. Even taking that into account, there have been a few studies from the last few years that first-year TFA people in high-needs schools don’t perform any worse than their seasoned and formally certified peers, and in some cases, they perform better. (for example: I can attest to this: as a corps member, I sucked in both of my first two years and failed to make a truly positive academic impact for more than a small handful of students. The truly scary thing, however, was that none of my vastly more experienced and trained peers could say differently. In fact, one of my TFA colleagues in the math department quickly developed a reputation as the school’s finest math teacher.

I slowly became even more convinced of this as a KIPP teacher. We had a sixth grade math instructor with us for a period of years that was such an uber-ace, she won a Harriet Ball prize– one of the highest honors KIPP’s national network of thousands of teachers can bestow. She had no formal education degree or even a math degree. Two of my colleagues in the 8th grade have their students greatly outperforming their peers in Austin public schools at large. Both are loved by students in and out of the classroom for the work they’ve done and the relationships they’ve built. Both are two of the finest people I’ve ever worked with. Neither were formally certified or majored in their taught subject in college.

Conversely, I’ve seen plenty of formally trained and experienced people fail and fail hard, especially in difficult environments. Experience and training can breed complacency and arrogance. When you’re taught “the way” to do something and go ahead doing it for a few years, it can be hard to adjust course when it’s clearly not working. It’s easy to blame circumstances, the kids, the community, or just young people in general. Now, I’ve met PLENTY of conventionally trained teachers that are killing it in the classroom every day. I’m NOT knocking education coursework– just putting out there that it is not at all necessarily a predictor of success. I think that should be something to chew on for people mulling whether or not to spend the tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds/thousands of hours of time it takes complete formal education training.

So what are the predictors of success? I’ve seen people crush the teacher game in tough classrooms and I’ve seen people flame out. Aside from a genuine love of kids, which is not a skill, per se, rather a prerequisite (seriously, if you don’t love kids or don’t love them anymore, get the hell out of the business) when I think of things successful teachers have in common, I think of this list:

  1. Success in college.
  2. Self-awareness and comfort with learning from embarrassing mistakes.
  3. Good on-the-job coaching (not talking about the measly two formal observations we get per year)
  4. Good response to on-the-job-coaching.
  5. Commitment to making students more independent and successful people rather than the natural desire to make one’s job easier.
  6. 100% consistency in action and classroom procedure.
  7. A clear idea of what exactly kids need to accomplish over the year and good long-term planning to get them there.

Each of these items could probably be a blog entry all by themselves. For now, I can say that the great teachers I’ve met could do all of these things over a long period of time. Good teachers could do most of them. Bad teachers struggled with most or all. Previous preparation for teaching just doesn’t seem to matter as much as these skills when the grind of the school year sets in. Experience matters, but only for people who are using that experience to get better at these things.

On the subject of experience: for me, there seems to be something about year 3– teachers who are going about their business the right way seem to hit a stride. I certainly did. That’s anecdotal, I know (as is most of this writing), but I still feel it’s relevant. Unless you’ve got a really supportive environment, it can be so difficult to feel successful your first two years. You know there’s a lot to learn and it will only come with time. Be optimistic, keep doing the right things, and it’ll come along.

Many things matter when it comes to student success, but as far as teaching skill goes, I think the general public (and the education system itself) has a lot to learn about what matters most, especially in districts with the highest needs. Formal coursework can be the perfect start, but the bottom line is it doesn’t have to be.


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