Malcolm Gladwell, one of my favorite thinkers, published an article about hiring teachers in the New Yorker. I found it when Eduwonkette responded to Gladwell's article. Gladwell uses the first bad metaphor I have ever seen him write. I am a big fan of Gladwell's work, but it seems like he hasn't talked to as many teachers as researchers before writing this article. In it he compares teaching to being a professional football player. I am sure that all of the women I work with will appreciate being compared to a 6' 2" football player but the part that is really bad about the metaphor is how it portrays the circumstances. Gladwell compares watching players in college to watching teachers in student teaching. He then compares playing pro ball to becoming a real teacher. The metaphor breaks down because one reason many players can't transition to the big leagues is that the game changes. It becomes more complex and harder in the pros. Teaching isn't hierarchical in its demands, like college to professional football, and schools are not organized so that the same types of practices are needed to be successful in each.
The truth is that in some schools, you can teach like a high school quarterback and be fine, and in others you have to teach like professional quarterback to be successful. The real difference is that you get paid better in professional football if you are successful whereas in teaching, the high school quarterbacks and the professional quarterbacks all get paid the same.
The good news about Gladwell's article is that it highlights the role of Bob Pianta's work. I have been a fan of Pianta's work for years. I know that he would not say that teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse but he would agree that the traits of successful teachers can be found in anyone. In the article, Pianta highlights what a preschool teacher does that is good teaching--allowing students to show engagement through movement. He also points out what she could have done that would have supported more learning. This is where the profession can be taught how to maximize learning situations. The teacher does maximize the learning by responding "creatively" to the situation, as in she creates more learning using what is out of her control instead of shutting it down. The section of the article about Pianta's CLASS system is some of the best description of the demands and practice of teaching preschool I have ever read. Here is a brief snippet but please read the rest by going to the orginal article and scrolling down to the large font P.
Picture a young preschool teacher, sitting on a classroom floor surrounded by seven children. She is holding an alphabet book, and working through the letters with the children, one by one: “ ‘A’ is for apple. . . . ‘C’ is for cow.” The session was taped, and the videotape is being watched by a group of experts, who are charting and grading each of the teacher’s moves.
After thirty seconds, the leader of the group—Bob Pianta, the dean of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education—stops the tape. He points to two little girls on the right side of the circle. They are unusually active, leaning into the circle and reaching out to touch the book.
“What I’m struck by is how lively the affect is in this room,” Pianta said. “One of the things the teacher is doing is creating a holding space for that. And what distinguishes her from other teachers is that she flexibly allows the kids to move and point to the book. She’s not rigidly forcing the kids to sit back.”
Pianta’s team has developed a system for evaluating various competencies relating to student-teacher interaction. Among them is “regard for student perspective”; that is, a teacher’s knack for allowing students some flexibility in how they become engaged in the classroom. Pianta stopped and rewound the tape twice, until what the teacher had managed to achieve became plain: the children were active, but somehow the class hadn’t become a free-for-all.
“A lesser teacher would have responded to the kids’ leaning over as misbehavior,” Pianta went on. “ ‘We can’t do this right now. You need to be sitting still.’ She would have turned this off.”
What are some other things that preschool teachers do that might help teachers be more effective at higher grade levels?