Not just good but great teachers
When teachers introduce themselves and their careers with an apologetic “I am only a teacher,” my hackles are raised and I never pass up the chance to chide them and remind them about the vital role they play in the nurturing of hearts and minds. I tell them what a management guru said at a workshop I attended decades ago, which I have never forgotten. In admiration and awe of all that teachers do, he said teachers are the ultimate executives, making so many on-the-spot management decisions on any given class day. How and when do I reply to this letter from an irate parent? What to do with this child who comes to school with no homework? What about the children who are always hungry? In putting out fires in my classroom, do I attend to the bored and disruptive student in the last row or the group that is bullying the timid student? And, how do I improvise for the lack of materials for my science experiment? Yet this is merely scratching the surface, citing the obvious.
That is why author Jim Collins’ remark resonates: that being a superintendent of a large school district is more difficult than being CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation. His 2001 bestseller, “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… And Others Don’t,” studied 11 publicly traded companies for five years, tracking how their good performances for long periods transformed into greatness.
The warm public reception to the findings of the study motivated Collins and his team to apply and extend these to other sectors, especially public education. “Education is such an important cornerstone of our work,” he said. “It is not an option for us to accept our schools being good. They must be great.”
Because of Collins’ ongoing involvement in public education, a session at the 2013 Teach for All (TFA) Global Conference in Baoshan, Yunnan, was devoted to exploring how teachers are transformed from good to great. Moderated by TFA senior director of classroom leadership Steven Farr, the session tackled insights from Collins’ work on teacher growth.
The overarching question was a powerful one to ponder: What is happening in today’s classrooms that will change life for today’s children? Equally important, which actions promote effective teaching?
Disputing a commonly held belief, teachers who work long hours and late into the night are not necessarily the most effective ones. What matters most is the quality of the teacher-student relationship based on mutual respect and love. Not surprising is the observation that teachers who manifest improvement exhibit a more consistent focus on self-improvement and purposeful reflection.
Those with concrete, ambitious goals tend to succeed toward better teaching as they also imbue in students the conviction that they can all succeed.
These individuals have in them a driving force to keep on pushing in small strides, aware of the cumulative gains. They are highly motivated and cannot and will not stop at just being good. They are aware of the realities, of the hardships and limitations of their job (class size, students with varying levels of proficiency, neighborhood of school, etc.), but are convinced that they can prevail over these circumstances. They build positive relationships with colleagues, members of the community, their own students, “falling in love with their students, even the school vision….” They cannot but have a “fanatical desire to improve” as a teacher and feel the need to renew this passion. (These have also been called “Level 5” leader types.)
According to Collins in a 2003 interview, greatness is never achieved by a single event or program but efforts toward a goal or consistent direction for many years. This cumulative process is what he calls the “flywheel” effect. He finds this image particularly fitting for education where “consistency of momentum” is desired, rather than starting anew with another program every two years or with a change of leadership.
Predictably, the conversation led to more questions than answers—and the unending work ahead. What support do we give our teachers? How can their passion to teach be rekindled periodically? How can we help mediocre teachers? Is the exceptional teacher an anomaly, an outlier? The value of teacher training cannot be overemphasized.
Collins defines “greatness” in the context of American public schools, standards that the Philippine setting can work with. He names four factors: an outstanding performance; a significant and unique impact so that if it were gone, it would leave a vacuum hard to fill, a true loss to the community; resiliency, having gone through challenges and used these to rise stronger; longevity, so that its performance of excellence is not just for one to three years but for at least 15 or more years.
Setting all idealism aside, we must first honor and acknowledge the heroic day-to-day work of all teachers by paying them respectable wages.
We need good to great teachers, and were we so fortunate, great to visionary teachers even more.
Neni Sta. Romana Cruz (email@example.com) is chair of the National Book Development Board, a trustee of Teach for the Philippines, and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.
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