Teachers, Not Gods

If your ratio is golden, do different math. If your bullets are silver, put down the gun.

These terms in education should have us worrying about the medicine men who come to town hocking their wares and schemes for how improving X will make all the difference. For the longest time, you couldn’t walk into a conversation about education in America without hearing someone say teachers were the biggest classroom factor on student achievement.

Fix teachers, the argument went, and you’d have fixed learning. The research showed a persistent positive impact on a student’s achievement if that student had a highly-effective teacher three years in a row. A cottage industry sprang up and schools were required to document the “highly-effective” status of their teachers.

While I don’t argue with the findings of the research, I do argue against the assumed implications of that research or the suggestion that a highly-effective teacher is the deciding factor of student success. Focusing on a single factor and holding it above all others will always be ill-advised.

This 2013 study showed the effective of poverty on cognitive load. In essence, people in poverty are navigating being poor and that puts extra stress on their capacity to learn the facts of the Crimean War.

If we are following the belief in the highly-effective teacher, though, we set the poverty aside. We call on our teachers to teach through the poverty (and asking students to learn through it) rather than acknowledging and addressing the pervasive effects of poverty on the system.

The greater the effects of poverty, the more highly-effective the teachers need be. As we have set all of our hopes on the highly-effective teacher, it matters less and less as research shows the effects of childhood trauma, hunger, impediments to accessibility, poor infrastructure, racism, and the like. In the end, our super teachers are called upon to be so highly effective as to negate and reverse the effects of any manner of negative variables impacting student learning.

This, wasn’t where we started. It’s not what the research was suggesting. No one said, “Fix the teachers and you’ll be good to go.” Instead, the implications were more refined. Give teachers the skills, knowledge, and supports to be effective at their practice, and they’ll be good at their practice. Those skills, knowledge, and supports mean ensuring the students in a teacher’s care are well-fed, have access to the right social services, are presented with the best learning resources, and a list of other factors we know to impact learning.

More broadly, this means actively working against poverty rather than asking teachers to teach against poverty. It means ending childhood violence rather than asking teachers to teach through childhood violence. It means committing to make better communities rather than simply expecting teachers to be better teachers.

The golden ratio or silver bullet are useless once we begin to acknowledge that schools, teachers, and students exist in an of a world. Asking them to learn and teach despite that world or as though they are not a part of it is myopic and cruel.


This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

One thought on “Teachers, Not Gods

  1. Thanks so much for this clarity and brevity. I continue to wonder why we persist in so many ways, on so many levels to seek “the answer” to all our education and (while we’re at it) societal woes in schools. I can only conclude that we don’t really mean what we say or believe that things can ever really be different. I keep hoping, though that we’ll get past this tendency.

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