Friday Food for Thought #19

Summer is over, and children are back to school – always an exciting but often stressful time of year.
what the dog saw

I am currently re-reading the book What the Dog Saw: by Malcolm Gladwell – in 2008 he wrote a thought-provoking article entitled MOST LIKELY TO SUCCEED. The book contains a chapter expanding on the article: the dilemma of hiring effective teachers. Teachers are generally initially employed based on their transcripts from the teaching program that they graduated from, in conjunction with their interview with the hiring committee – there is no first hand observation of the teacher interacting with the students (except maybe on a substitute or term basis). Eric Hanushek is an economist at Stanford, who says there is a vast difference between good teachers and bad teachers – about a year’s worth of learning. He says that on average, students with a bad teacher will learn half a year’s material in a given school year, while the students of a good teacher learn a year and a half’s worth. Hanushek says that “a child is better off in a bad school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher.”
But how do schools find the “good” teachers?

Gladwell contends that schools should handle the hiring of teachers in the same way that financial firms hire advisors. Candidates are put through a “training camp” in which minimum goals are pre-established and monitored. Those who reach the set goals are hired on as “apprentices” – of which only about 40% will still be on staff in 4 years. The goal is to aim for the best, not settle for mediocre. It requires lots of rigorous evaluation by administration, and change in philosophy about salary and job security. For the most part, once a teacher has been in the school for a certain length of time, they gain tenure – which is essentially a permanent contract within that school division. Some critics say that tenure makes it virtually impossible to fire a bad teacher. Salary should be based on the teacher’s yearly performance. High performing teachers would need to be paid accordingly, but the school would eliminate paying top salaries to less effective teachers simply based on the number of years that they have been teaching. Hanushek says that teacher effects are stronger than class size effects. With a staff of great teachers, school divisions may not have to worry as much about class size.

I worked with a financial institution for 18 years (not having a business background, but with an education degree), and I know first hand about goals and quarterly performance reviews, pay-at-risk and bonuses, promotions and demotions. Was it stressful? At times, but it also motivates employees to come to work each and every day, prepared to do their best. Is it a work environment suited to everyone? No way, but it does provide a structure to hire and retain effective employees.

This topic really does intrigue me because though I have a teaching degree and love children, I don’t believe I would be an effective teacher. But as a parent, I have always used my own 4C method to evaluate my child’s teachers:
The teacher should connect with your child. A teacher who has a cool demeanor or is aloof isn’t likely to fully engage your child.
An effective teacher needs to be cognizant of the different learning styles within the class. Some children are visual learners, others are auditory, and some need kinesthetic (hands-on) experiences. Special needs kids may require scaffolding or extra help to fully grasp some concepts.
High performing teachers will be creative and embrace change. Just because a lesson-plan was successful last year doesn’t mean that it will work as well ongoing. An effective teacher will adapt and revise as required. The best teachers are learners themselves – always upgrading their qualifications.
An excellent teacher will challenge your child. In addition to teaching the fundamentals, a teacher should foster a child’s curiosity and encourage them to think for themselves.

As classes begin, consider whether you want your child to learn 50% or 150% of their curriculum this year.
back to school

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