The Calm of Experience

This is a story of my own learning as a teacher.

During my student teaching, I particularly struggled with a boy I will call Aidan. He was a gloomy 7th grader, a social isolate with no particular sense of humor who regularly antagonized other students.

One day, when I was patrolling the hallways between classes, Aidan rolled by a row of lockers on his Heely’s, elbowing several girls along the way. Because I did not have much empathy for the child to begin with, this incident angered me, perhaps more than it should have.

I brought him to the Head of School’s office, ready for him to get his just desserts. After I relayed what I had witnessed to Teacher Celia (her real name — she deserves all the praise I am about to give her), she turned to Aidan with a calm look on her face.

“Aidan, is what Teacher Lani* said accurate?”

Aidan looked at his lap and reluctantly nodded.

“Can you see what the problems are with what you just did?”

Aidan was quiet. She waited, watching him intently.

After a pause that was longer than anything my 21 year-old self would have had the patience to endure, he looked up at her sheepishly.

“Well, yeah.”

In the remainder of the interaction, Aidan admitted to his poor judgment in both wearing Heely’s at school and elbowing the girls. He and Teacher Celia agreed to the consequences.

I no longer recall what they worked out, since I was so dazzled by her calm, accepting presence. I remember that it seemed measured and fair, giving Aidan an opportunity to repair his relationship with his peers and learn from his mistake.

Why am I writing about this now?

I have two reasons.

First, we are in an era that thinks that just because you learn so much about teaching on the job, there are those who would simply put new teachers in the classroom without much student teaching or mentoring.

Watching Teacher Celia with Aidan helped me see that I needed to move past identifying with the elbowed girls and reacting to Aidan as an annoying boy. I needed to figure out how to be his teacher too. Teacher Celia’s poise and humanity in dealing with him became my go-to image when I dealt with a child who I struggled with. I did not spend a lot of time with administrators in my own career as a student, so seeing the right way to handle misbehavior was critical to my own development.

Second, I am concerned that we are normalizing teacher turnover so that the calm presence of experience has become a rarity in many schools. Estimates of teacher turnover in the first five years range from 30% to 50%, with the rates being even higher among TFA teachers (about 80% leave after 3 years). The burdens of turnover are high, impacting everything from achievement to the cost of staffing and retraining.

I think there is another cost to turnover that involves the social well-being of children. When I see the disciplinary statistics in schools, I wonder if the calm wisdom of experience exists on the most afflicted campuses. Aidan was lucky that Teacher Celia was the go-to for the consequences of his misbehavior and that his discipline was not left to me. She was measured, whereas I surely would have been more reactive. Likewise, in the second school I taught at, we had an administrator with the same matter-of-fact calm when dealing with behavior issues; I was always grateful when children in my class had last names that fell in the first third of the alphabet so we could sort things through with her. I could trust her to preserve the student’s and my own humanity and help us arrive at a reasonable solution.

I am not trying to romanticize experience or say that all veteran teachers share this wisdom. However, I do think it is easier to muster a calm perspective when dealing with students from the vantage point of experience. This calm is certainly a rarity in barely-mentored newbies. I believe that the first year of teaching is often so difficult, in part, due to the steep learning curve and constant novelty of high stakes situations. As experience accrues, these situations become more manageable and teachers’ reactivity diminishes. But if we continuously staff our schools with minimally mentored novices, we take away an important resource from children and their development.

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* This student teaching placement was in a Quaker school, where teachers are called “Teacher [First Name]”, showing respect and familiarity.

What do we get with the “highly qualified teacher” clause of NCLB?

The conception of teacher competence animating NCLB can be traced to the landmark 1966 Coleman Report. As a part of America’s War on Poverty, Coleman, a sociologist, examined educational opportunity in the US, finding that school funding did not impact educational outcomes as much as teacher quality did. Part of what Coleman identified is what has come to be known as the maldistribution of qualified teachers. In the United States, poor children and children from historically underrepresented groups are disproportionately assigned to the weakest teachers –– a situation that persists to this day. International comparisons reveal that the United States stands out in this maldistribution problem: our country’s disparities in students’ access to qualified teachers is among the largest in the world.

Coleman’s formulation has had a continuous impact on notions of teacher quality. Numerous subsequent studies have verified positive associations between student achievement and teachers’ academic qualifications. This relationship has been confirmed through correlations between student outcomes with teachers’ scores on various standardized exams; and level of teachers’ content knowledge, usually proxied through course-taking counts; and years of teaching experience.

NCLB is animated by this legacy. The law sought to address the maldistribution problem by legislating a definition of teacher quality by mandating highly qualified teachers in every classroom. True to the Coleman logic, highly qualified teachers, according to NCLB, are those with full certification, a college degree, and demonstrated content knowledge in the subject being taught.

However, the legal definition of highly qualified has left much open to debate. For instance, in the description of highly qualified teachers, the word “student” only appears once, and then only as a moderating adjective.

In other words, the relational work of teaching is completely ignored.  Social, emotional, and cultural knowledge does not come through the policy text, nor does the specialized content knowledge teachers require to effectively represent and cultivate students’ understanding –– what Shulman called pedagogical content knowledge. In light of these omissions, the definition of highly qualified teachers may not reach deeply enough into the kinds of knowledge and qualities teachers need to best serve students living in poverty, thus potentially undermining part of the law’s intent.

Research on teachers of historically underserved students emphasizes that effective teachers engage particular forms of knowledge as well as the moral and political qualities, emphasizing cultural knowledge and a commitment for social justice and change, as well as pointing to organizational structures and collegial practices that support more equitable outcomes. Furthermore, the law’s emphasis on teachers and not teaching conflates teacher qualifications with quality teaching, which are not interchangeable. Organizational supports, colleagues and other resources contribute to what is possible instructionally, aside from an individual’s training.

In the end, the highly qualified teacher clause sets a minimum standard, but given the pragmatic demands of legislation, it falls short of more professionalizing notions of teacher quality. There is a huge difference between competence in rote instruction and what has been termed “ambitious instruction”  ––  teaching that strives to include as many children as possible in rich forms of content.

There is not an obvious mapping between the qualifications outlined in NCLB and ambitious instruction. Although the research on teacher quality following the Coleman report related teacher characteristics to student outcomes, ambitious teaching aims for a higher bar. Even under the best versions of traditional instruction, not enough children learned in ways that would support them in developing robust understandings of content. In one study investigating links between “highly qualified” teachers and more effective instruction, neither certification nor formal education within a subject predicted the use of ambitious methods; however, the combination of subject training and subject-specific pedagogical training did.