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Measuring greatness

WASHINGTON — The YouTube video shows an anonymous first-grade teacher trying, and failing, to get her students to discuss a book. You see kids yammering away, wandering off, squabbling. The teacher snaps her fingers at one child, sends another to the corner and tells a boy, "You're really bugging me."

My job was to study a roomful of would-be teachers as they watched the video — and gauge their reactions to determine if these candidates had what it takes to be "inspired teachers." But what could I really tell about a person's aptitude for teaching from how they responded to a few minutes of YouTube?

I'd been asked to serve on a panel that would choose teaching fellows for the Center for Inspired Teaching, a Washington nonprofit that trains people to become the kind of energetic, idealistic, effective teachers who might help turn around the D.C. school system. Here was my chance to peek inside that wing of the national school-reform movement that maintains that, after decades of futile tinkering with curriculum, class size and a dozen other factors, the key to change is to focus on who is teaching. Get rid of bad teachers and bring in good ones, the reformers say.

But how do you know who's good — especially if they've never taught a kid in their lives?

For a full day, I, along with retired teachers, professors, reformers and center staff would observe and question 15 candidates from all walks: college seniors looking for their first job, teachers trying to improve their skills, people in unrelated careers looking for a change. They were among 180 applicants seeking a slot in a 15-month program that starts with a summer-long boot camp and continues with a full year as a D.C. teacher, paired with an experienced mentor.

The goal is nothing less than to radically change children's classroom experience. Ideally, the Inspired Teaching fellows will treat children like the eager, curious and fascinating people they are, rather than prisoners in an institution. Many skeptics will roll their eyes. What works in some idealist's manifesto about children's natural desire to learn won't fly in these classrooms, with those kids, they say. And that, I quickly learned, is one sure-fire way not to get into the Inspired Teaching program: Call students those kids.

As the day progressed, the candidates took part in unconventional exercises that turned out to be every bit as revealing as traditional interview and essay questions. I was surprised by how easy it was to slot most candidates into lists of winners and losers. Most were clearly either the kind of person I could easily see kids remembering for the rest of their lives or the kind who makes kids loathe school.

You're either "curious," "contemplative," "flexible" and "adaptive" — among characteristics we were to watch for — or you're not. The guy who scoffed, frowned and repeatedly exhaled in frustration when asked to use a pile of art supplies to construct a nonverbal definition of intelligence was not going to inspire kids to think creatively about fractions, poetry or how we know the Earth isn't flat.

At the other end of the spectrum, a woman who offered a slew of reasons why it might be perfectly okay for a child to color his fingertips with markers won praise. "I'm usually not so excited by the fresh-outs," one staffer said, using the organization's slang for applicants just finishing college. "But she's terrific."

I worried that we were being swayed by subjective impressions: the candidates' energy, confidence, improvisational talent. But as we turned to the scoring rubric that would be the basis of our selections, those impressions turned into reasoned judgments about characteristics. Do candidates believe that all children can think and learn, or do they see kids as problems? Who has the personal strength and skills to persevere and connect with students? And who feels called to teach? (Probably not the guy who said teaching was a good way to learn about his community before running for a seat in Congress.)

"We try to be as objective as possible, but there is a magic factor," said Julie Sweetland, Inspired Teaching's research director.

The selection process demonstrates that the potential to connect with kids permeates a personality; or, as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart would have put it: "I know it when I see it."

The judges mostly all developed similar impressions of the candidates. Maybe, then, there is such a thing as an "inspired teacher" — someone who listens well, with high standards and perseverance, who is also vulnerable and loving.

The idea that great teachers are born, not made? Aleta Margolis, the founder and director of Inspired Teaching, doesn't buy it. Yes, some people are more likely to become great teachers than others, but Margolis believes many, if not most, educators can be taught to turn away from an authoritarian approach and adopt values and methods that help children become active, involved learners.

They can be molded into "instigators of thought" rather than providers of information, teachers who present questions such as: "This is the formula for multiplying fractions — why?"

Maybe great teachers are both born and made.

I started the day hesitant about picking great teachers out of a crowd, but as the candidates spoke, I saw in some of them meaningful flashes of the extraordinary people I've seen change lives in my years of covering schools, in my children's classes and in my own education. The raw material really does stand out; whether it develops into inspired teaching depends on the training and time that follow.

But even the most promising teachers won't face their greatest challenge until after their training, when they go to work in schools where senior colleagues advise them not to smile until after Christmas, to show the kids who's boss.

That's when the real test happens: In schools suspicious of kids, change takes place only when individual teachers take on the system. Now that's when you really need to be inspired.

Marc Fisher, the Washington Post's enterprise editor for local news, has covered education as a reporter and columnist for three decades.

Measuring greatness 04/17/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 16, 2010 5:18pm]
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