There is plenty of research to support the value of great teachers. Skilled and committed educators often make a difference for individual students as well as entire classes. There is little to no debate about this fact. Yet, that doesn’t mean that the skill of the teacher is the only factor. In fact, you can have an amazing teacher who, given the right conditions, can experience less than impressive results with a group of students.
Or, as I state in the title of this article, a world-class driver in a Yugo will not win the Indy 500. It doesn’t matter how well the driver handles the curves. That driver’s car lacks the horsepower to compete. The driver can be passionate, committed, and the most skilled driver in the world; but still find himself/herself in last place.
To what extent does this same concept apply to teachers in many schools? What are the key resources necessary for great teachers to produce great results? Some argue that great teachers are just great teachers. Put them in a room with students and they will make magic happen. This is a wonderfully inspiring and romantic view of the teaching profession, and I don’t deny the fact that great teachers are more likely to help create a rich learning environment than those who lack skill in or commitment to the task. Yet, there is a limit to this vision and I’ve witnessed it in school systems.
Policies are not neutral. By their very nature, policies create opportunities and limit others. Policymakers quite often create them to address specific problems or amplify certain values and convictions over others. In doing so, they will muzzle other values and convictions, while also limiting certain practices. This includes unknowingly limiting the convictions and practices of great teachers.
This happens all the time. We set policies about testing requirements, unknowingly transforming how people spend time in school and class. We set policies about attendance, what constitutes attendance, and what constitutes truancy. We come up with measures like seat time that are well-meaning but again unknowingly limit creative approaches to teaching and learning. We create educational bureaucracies where the policies and practices are increasingly decided and distanced from teachers, students, and parents. We do it “for their own good”, often inspired by some sort of moral or pragmatic imperative. Then we find ourselves surprised when there is limited ownership by teachers, students, and/or parents. We put them in a Yugo of our own creation and then complain when they don’t place in or win the Indy 500.
Charter schools were created on the K-12 level to become incubators of learning protected from such a world. Yet, this has become the primary attack of charter schools by many, that they lack oversight and accountability. By freeing them from some of these policies we removed certain policies that protected against abuses. Unfortunately, these critiques are sometimes warranted as some have taken advantage of this freedom or failed to accept the high responsibility that comes with it. I’ve far from given up on the charter model however, as I see the alternative as even more dangerous.
I’ve met plenty of wonderful, quirky, interesting, committed, and skilled teachers who found charters to be havens from the bureaucracies that nearly drove them away from their callings. It is sad to see the passion extinguished from the eyes of teachers, and more importantly, students. The charter approach may not be the best solution, but I’ve seen enough cases of charters creating space for that passion to return that I couldn’t possibly argue for shutting them down. Until we have something better and scalable, I will be an advocate, albeit one who also calls for non-stifling but stringent accountability.
Yet, I don’t intend to make this article about the good and ills of charter schools. This is about setting people up for success. A good school leader must ask a couple of important questions. What are the conditions under which teachers perform at their best? What resources do I need to provide for that to happen? How can I get these in place? The same questions can and should be asked about students. What are the conditions under which students perform at their best, are engaged, developing a love of learning, and nurturing a senses of calling, purpose, and agency? How do we get both teachers and students out of our institutional Yugo and into something that sets them up for the best possible performance in the race of life and learning?