Great Teachers Aren’t Enough

With budget cuts to education and social services, schools are struggling across the nation to do more with less. However, the current approach used by the Obama Administration, Arne Duncan, and other so-called reformers is that a good teacher can overcome everything thrown at them.

You’re a great teacher? Have some extra students.

You’re a great teacher? Here are the toughest students to teach.

You’re a great teacher? Mentor other teachers.

You’re a great teacher? Go to the toughest school.

But a great teacher can’t overcome the damage done by budget cuts, bad education theory, and poor home lives. Ellie Herman, a teacher in Los Angeles, recently wrote a compelling and eloquent piece detailing the false assumptions at the heart of the reform movement today. She says:

The kid in the back wants me to define “logic.” The girl next to him looks bewildered. The boy in front of me dutifully takes notes even though he has severe auditory processing issues and doesn’t understand a word I’m saying. Eight kids forgot their essays, but one has a good excuse because she had another epileptic seizure last night. The shy, quiet girl next to me hasn’t done homework for weeks, ever since she was jumped by a knife-wielding gangbanger as she walked to school. The boy next to her is asleep with his head on the desk because he works nights at a factory to support his family. Across the room, a girl weeps quietly for reasons I’ll never know. I’m trying to explain to a student what I meant when I wrote “clarify your thinking” on his essay, but he’s still confused.

It’s 8:15 a.m. and already I’m behind my scheduled lesson. A kid with dyslexia, ADD and anger-management problems walks in late, throws his books on the desk and swears at me when I tell him to take off his hood.

The class, one of five I teach each day, has 31 students, including two with learning disabilities, one who just moved here from Mexico, one with serious behavior problems, 10 who flunked this class last year and are repeating, seven who test below grade level, three who show up halfway through class every day, one who almost never comes. I need to reach all 31 of them, including the brainiac who’s so bored she’s reading “Lolita” under her desk.

I just can’t do it.

This theory seems to show that the teacher as savior myth is alive and well. At what point do people wake and realize that schools reflect the communities in which they reside? That teachers can’t overcome every social obstacle? That those making the decisions in education are harming more kids than they are helping?

Herman counters the Asia and Norway arguments with this:

But a huge percentage of students in Japan and South Korea pay for after-school tutoring to make up for a lack of individualized attention at school. Finland, with the best scores in the world, has average class sizes in the 20s, and it caps science labs at 16.

She also details the challenges faced by teachers:

A whole chunk of my students are alienated by this highly structured environment: the artists, the rebels, the class clowns — in other words, some of my smartest kids.

On a good day, about a fourth of my students don’t do the reading or the homework; if I set up a conference after school, they might show up and they might not. Why? Because one kid thinks he has an STD, and another girl’s brother just got out of juvie, and another guy wandered to the ice cream truck and forgot. Because they’re teenagers. Because they’re human.

She follows this with the increasing disparity between the affluent and the poor:

But nobody talks that way about the children of the wealthy, who can pay for individual attention in tutoring or private schools with small classes. I understand that we need to get rid of bad teachers, who will be just as bad in small classes, but we can’t demand that teachers be excellent in conditions that preclude excellence.

Our children — even our children growing up in poverty, especially our children growing up in poverty — deserve to have not only an extraordinary teacher but a teacher who has time to read their work, to listen, to understand why they’re crying or sleeping or not doing homework.

Teachers are being set up for failure. And, when they do, it will signal a marshaled call to destroy completely the old system and to create a new one, a private one, one that will favor the affluent and condemn the destitute.

A great teacher can overcome much, but a great teacher is not a panacea.

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